The Corporation – a film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott & Joel Bakan – has been almost obscenely successful, for a documentary on an economic and legal subject, having grossed over three million dollars to date and scooping up rave reviews and awards left, right, and centre. Indeed, such has been the success, that film maker Jennifer Abbott admits to having had pangs of unease: “Every now and then we wonder if we've done something wrong “, she laughs, talking about the remarkably positive reviews the film has received, not only from left wing activists, but also from sources like The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and, perhaps least likely of all, Fortune Magazine. “They sent four CEOs to see the film and they rated it on a scale of 1-4. One gave it a 4, two gave it a 3.5 out of 4 and one gave it a 3 out of 4!”. That's not to suggest that the film is a corporate makeover job. Far from it. The film will impress many an activist caught up in the anti-globalisation movement, while at the same time provoking thought from all but the most hardened involved in the corporate world. Abbott places this down to the fact that “while the film is an activist film, at the same time it's not only being seen by activists, and the issues that it raises are not only being deemed important by those on the left of the spectrum. There are certainly many corporate insiders who think there are issues that we raise that are important to dialogue about, even if they don't agree with everything in the film”.
Any film that manages to get Milton Friedman, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and a host of corporate C.E.Os is bound to be interesting, but The Corporation has managed to be more than a 'worthy' film: it’s also entertaining. Abbott admits that this was one of the challenges from the outset: ” today when there's more of an understanding that documentaries can be just as entertaining and engaging as narrative film, there's more pressure to be that way. The best ideas fall flat in a film if they're presented in a dry or formulaic way. To convert ideas into stories for a film that are then rich and engaging visually was certainly one of our goals”.
The initial impetus for the film came from Joel Bakan, professor of law at the University of British Columbia, and an internationally recognized legal scholar. Based on the legal precedent that has established corporations as having legal personhood, Abbott explains that Bakan started wondering exactly what sort of person a corporation can be: “He had a sort of epiphany in Law school about the uncanny way that the corporation as an institution meets the characteristics of a psychopath. It met all the criteria that he learned about when he was in psych101 about how a flesh and blood psychopath is diagnosed”. And so, the film is loosely structured around a diagnosis check list, with criteria ranging from “callous unconcern for others” to “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviours”.
Around this structure, the film makers set out to make the case, with the use of a stunning array of interviews. “The structure of the film was really driven by the interviews. It frustrated Mark Achbar [the other director] a little bit, as I refused to work with any footage that wasn't either interview footage, archival footage or footage that was directly informing the narrative. I think it was very important to find the film within the interviews and the narrative structure”.