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Barred Code: A protester delivers a mute statement against global materialism in 'The Corporation.'

Corporation Man

An interview with documentary filmmaker Mark Achbar

By Richard von Busack

Mark Achbar of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media co-directed the north-of-the-border documentary The Corporation--an extensive profile of the life and times of today's corporations. This scary yet often humorous film, now playing, includes interviews with Michael Moore, Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Howard Zinn--as well as econlomist Milton Friedman and Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, project director of Royal Dutch Shell.

The most haunting interview, though, may be with the southern CEO Ray Anderson of Interface, the world's largest manufacturer of commercial carpeting. Anderson lives in fear of what will happen to the world if we don't abandon the grab-and-slash side of corporate capitalism in favor of sustainability.

Metro: Is there a movement to draft Ray Anderson for president?

Achbar: I haven't heard. We have a CEO running Canada now. He's a business guy, his past is union busting in Australia.

The Corporation is just rife with ironies, but to qualify for public money, I had to become a for-public corporation. Not a publicly traded one, though I had to incorporate and become for-profit company in order to embark on this effort, if I wanted the support of our federal and provincial investment agencies. Part of the money is grant and most of it is equity investment. The Canadian taxpayers essentially funded this, and they stand to get a profit if it succeeds.

We're getting applauded though, because this film's run started in January, and it started with five prints. Since then it's played in 70 cities, and it's the most successful feature doc ever made in Canada. The Corporation has given most of the Canadian- and American-made films a run for their money at art houses and suburban multiplexes. And the bureaucrats who supported it are taking great pride in its success.

Metro: Since we have the 16 mm film forum ciné16 in San Jose, we still see a lot of Canadian Film Board films--is it true that they're not funding movies like they once did?

Achbar: The purging of 16 mm films from libraries and institutions is exactly what's meant by a "tragedy of the commons."

I'm told Canadian government isn't funding it like it was. Everybody's going to be nostalgic for the way thing used to be. I think the film board was a different kind of institutions, and the filmmakers were artists in residents with a great deal of freedom. It's all a tougher battle now. The system's designed to be market-driven. Making a film hinges on one's ability to pre-commitment from television broadcasters. If you get that, you can leverage your support at the other institution. We didn't get any commercial network support, though we asked for it. We ended up with one national cable outlet behind us, a on profit network called Vision TV that broadcasts moral, spiritual and ethical issue programming. That money was back up by funds from four educational networks in four different Canadian provinces, which are all publicly funded.

Metro: "Moral, spiritual and ethical programming?"

Achbar: They show all sorts of documentaries concerned with social issues--and a good deal of religious programming. There was a United States equivalent equivalent called Wisdom Channel.

It'd be interesting if this film could be a common ground between church groups and activists. Even though The Corporation is not explicitly dealing with spiritual issues, it's all there. And Ray Anderson comes off as a bit of an evangelist. I'd love to reach out to all those constituencies and demographics. I do believe the film has a broader appeal than just to the so-called converted or committed left. I think it really has a lot to say to the business community, to the employees of the corporations--who know these truths better than any of us. I hope it would appeal to the people who are affected by corporations, and the people who run them. We tried to make sure half of the forty interview subjects are corporate insiders.

Metro: How did you approach Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, the exec at Royal Dutch Shell?

Achbar: "Hi, we're making a film about the modern business corporation, with all kinds of people, critics and others. Your institution has had a remarkable history and evolution, and you've got a lot of insight into it. And we're interested in what you have to say."

Metro: The footage of Moody-Stuart's wife serving tea to the protesters who cornered them at their home is unique.

Achbar: It's not like we had the footage, and he told us that story. He told us the story, and we tried to find some news coverage. Our incredible stalk-shot researcher Paula Sawadasky did an incredible job tracking down the one VHS PAL copy of this incident--the original had been lost--and Moody-Stuart facilitated that by telling us the [names of the] groups--there was a little coverage in the local newspaper--and we verified with the activists, that Moody's rendition of the incident was basically accurate.

I thought there was some real progress made in that encounter between Moody-Stuart and the protesters. When I show this to some of the younger kids, they react against that scene; they think the protesters have been taken in, seduced in a way.

Metro: They're disappointed Moody-Stuart doesn't turn up in a top hat, a cape and a black mustache.

Achbar: He could have just as easily called the police. Instead you had dialogue and a sharing of values. The dialogue went like this:

The problem's not you, it's Shell.
And then, what is Shell?

People like me, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart. But people like me operating under certain constraints, and there are legal obligations and boundaries, beyond which Moody-Stuart cannot impose his personal agenda. And that's where it starts to become interesting. [As a result of the protest] Moody-Stuart can't say he isn't aware of what's going on in Nigeria, what Shell's doing.

My cameraman asked Moody-Stuart, right after the interview was over, "If you had it to do over again, would you do anything different.?" Moody-Stuart was very pensive for a long time, but after 30 seconds, no, that he wouldn't. From his perspective, he'd done all he could do, he'd wrote the diplomatic letter to stop the Nigerian persecution of activists. He was drawn into the problem of reducing the environmental assault in Nigeria that prompted these guys to protest in the first place. But he understood the question as "Did you do everything you could to stop that Nigerian government, once they'd made the decision to hang these guys?"

Metro: This is a paranoia-inducing subject.

Achbar: Paranoia is irrational. We're trying to create a rational concern.

Metro: Are there times when you were doing this film that you had that sense of terror and loss of hope that some people might feel when they see a corporate logo that's four or five stories high on the side of a skyscraper. When Exxon or IBM or whoever tries to induce the awe a peasant might have felt when they saw a church steeple, back in the Middle Ages? A corporation's attempt, I mean, to create the feeling: "We are enormous, we have always been here, we will always be here."

Achbar: It's not terror, it's more like trepidation. It's funny, these corporations want to be perceived as equal to government. And these days you hear about public/private partnerships. But a partnership is a relationship between equals, and they want the general public to think of them as an equal to government, not subservient to it.

Yet government is an institution that we have every right to speak back to, to protest against, to write to and to talk back to, and we are entitled to an influence over it. But the corporation has no such accountability. Yet it wants to be perceived as having that power and that role that government serves.

And when we talk about fear of corporations, I think we do fear to speak back to them, because they have such legal clout, such financial resources. Because they will come back at you in a way government won't or can't. There's a kind of vengefulness than can rear its head in the legal realm. As a filmmaker I live in fear of lawsuits, and slapsuits--strategic litigation against public participation. They have a lot of money they can throw at me. So far, they haven't. So far we've had a successful, widely publicized commercial run of the film in Canada, and maybe the thought is--if we're quiet about it, maybe they'll go away.

Metro: But, as you document in The Corporation, Monsanto did its best to shut up Florida TV reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson when they were reporting on the bovine growth hormone.

Achbar: At a certain point, truth is a defense. This is not libelous, these charges we're making, they're well documented. We have a really smart law professor, and Simon and Schuster's legal people went through this book. The Corporation is an assembly of facts. True-crime stories, as told in many instances through the insiders. You can dispute the analysis and the framework, and we can have a meaningful discussion of what the methods are to save the world and reduce suffering in the Third World in the south and at home. The strategies were going to employ are up for discussion ... and I guess the film is trying to provoke that discussion

Metro: Is it possible that the Age of Corporation could be a passing stage?

Achbar: I think if you look at any dominant institution through history, at the time when it was dominant, one couldn't imagine any thing else. The church surrounded you, and God granted you everything, Today, the corporation provides us with everything, provides protections, people arguably pray to them in the form of lottery.

Metro: And they wear the logos as sacred talismans.

Achbar: I think every institution through history had its moments: the church, the monarchy. Those moments pass, and then something else comes along. The question is, where are we on the timeline? Two years before the Berlin wall came down, who would have foretold it? Suddenly, the institution loses its legitimacy.

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Web extra to the June 2-8, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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