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

The Firm

A new documentary explores the bottom line on 'The Corporation' culture worldwide

By Richard von Busack

AS FOR Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11: according to his website, Moore claims that he's still on course to get his Palme d'Or-winning movie released on July 4. Meanwhile, audiences can whet their appetites on The Corporation, the documentary co-directed by Mark Achbar (who, in turn, was the co-director of the cult favorite Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media). Achbar and his partner, Jennifer Abbott, have assembled a long, often humorous, but always devastating argument about the nature of the corporation.

The multinational corporation dominates modern life and thought as thoroughly as such institutions as the medieval church and the Communist Party once did. Like their predecessors, these corporations tolerate little dissent, accept no bounds and see their mission as extending into infinity. A word used here that ought to get more currency: "externalities." This term means the cost of business that's blown elsewhere, during the course of a transaction between the seller and consumer. Some sample "externalities" are oil pollution in the waters of Nigeria, the pressure to find cheaper and ever-cheaper labor and the starvation of displaced peasants. A story this large requires a worldwide setting, and The Corporation provides the locales.

In India, rice farmers were almost prohibited from planting basmati rice, which had been patented behind their backs. In Cochabamba, Peru, riots broke out after a corporation tried to privatize all the city's water—including the rain that fell into the rooftop cisterns. And in Florida, Fox News and Monsanto double-teamed Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, two television reporters trying to do a piece on bovine growth hormones. We learn how corporations were first chartered, giving them the same rights as an individual. The charter gives a corporation legal protection, but this protection can be taken away. The recent unsuccessful suit by environmentalists to disenfranchise Unocal was a victory in disguise: it established that the state of California still held the legal right to take away a charter.

Vintage advertising and training films, cartoons and graphics lighten the documentary. The best running gag is a use of the World Health Organization's guidelines for diagnosing psychopathia to examine the corporate "person." The implication is that a really powerful and cruel corporation would fit the profile of a maniac, because of lack of concern for the law, humanity and the truth. The subjects include usual suspects like Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Howard Zinn and, of course, Moore. The last is caught in an unusually thoughtful mood as he describes the loophole in capitalism ("The rich man will sell you the rope to hang him with as long as he thinks he can make a buck from the transaction"). But the other side of the picture is provided by the fatherly Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, project manager at Royal Dutch Shell, and the University of Chicago's Milton Friedman. Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the world's largest commercial carpet manufacturer, is a haunted figure. He is busily trying to make amends for the pollution his company caused. He goes on speaking tours, urging other corporations to join him to climb what he calls "Mount Sustainability." Everyone who lives in the 21st century knows what the corporations have to answer for, but this documentary proves that they're neither immobile nor invulnerable.

The Corporation (Unrated; 145 min.), a documentary by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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

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