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Cutting Through Life under Corporate Rule

Canadian PoliticsCulture

The first thing the young man sees as he emerges from The Corporation is the theatre’s bright, shiny Pepsi Machine. Where once he saw a harmless soft drink, he now sees a bloated and arrogant corporate product. He gives the machine a slap.

“So long, sucker. It’s over. I’m ready to give you up.”

Others wander out of the theatre muttering darkly, exchanging reactions of shock, rage and rebellion. One man is stunned that the movie has compared the modern corporation to the Communist Party; another viewer is dismayed that she has ridiculed anti-globalization demonstrations, volunteering that she owes the protestors an apology.

A group of students linger, finally concluding that, just as the events of 9/11 forced ordinary people to start thinking seriously about American foreign policy, The Corporation will compel its audiences to think seriously about life under corporatism.

“Not just think,” says one, “but actually do something about it.”

Hate it or love it, The Corporation may be the most iconoclastic and influential documentary ever made. As a vehicle of creative protest, it surpasses the global hit Bowling for Columbine.

The film’s novel and clever theme slipped immediately into popular culture: “Corporations have succeeded in becoming legal persons; matching their documented actions to the World Health Organization’s diagnostic checklist of mental health, these persons are clearly amoral, callous, deceitful and anti-social, even while mimicking the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism. They suffer no guilt. They are psychopaths.”

This explains, of course, why Shell Oil can sit by and watch opponents of their energy policies in Nigeria hanged; why Monsanto silences journalists who want to warn Americans about their cancer-causing chemicals; why Bechtel can maim and murder Bolivians who interfere with their corporate water profits by collecting rain in their rain barrels – all without apology.

Even more importantly, The Corporation powerfully exposes the first lie accepted by most citizens of industrialized countries in the new millennium, especially North America: that capitalism and democracy are one and the same; that we are indebted to them for our freedom. It shows instead that the two are natural enemies; that capitalism has bought out democracy; that corporations alone are free while the rest of us are their witless slaves.

To its unending credit, the film explains, in highly entertaining style, how this happened, and why. But it sidesteps an urgent question: Why have we surrendered to the psychopaths? Why do we continue to do so?

The answer is found in the second great lie accepted by most citizens of modern industrialized countries, the lie that makes all others possible: that we are protected by a free press. We have allowed psychopaths to continue their rule because the corporate press, which calls itself free, artfully withholds the extent of the damage done to us by its masters. Without knowledge, action is impossible.

The Corporation has broken the unspoken code of the corporate media: no witnesses.

But not without a fight. When Vancouver lawyer and writer Joel Bakan first pitched the concept to the lords of T.V. at the Banff Television Festival, it was clear few were interested in ideas or analysis.

“Great book idea, but where’s the drama?” they asked.

“Outside the slashed-and-burned CBC, private-sector corporations are driven by the bottom line; they decide what we see and make a lot of money doing it. Public agencies subsidize them with taxpayer cash and the use of publicly owned airwaves,” Bakan says.

It took three years to raise the necessary funds for The Corporation – ultimately the creative team used mostly their own money – and six years to complete the job.

Though it has found its way into commercial theatres and drawn substantial audiences and great praise in the alternative media, especially the Internet, media reviews downplayed the achievement.

The Calgary Sun’s review was typical. It promoted the film as “an epic length, award winning Canadian made documentary about the history of incorporated companies” and “left wing agit-prop” – a clear invitation to readers to see something more interesting, like Agent Cody Banks or The Alamo. Readers had to persist to the end of the Sun’s review in order to see the four-star rating.

If the corporate world imagines that The Corporation was a mere single assault on public perception, it will not be pleased to learn that there are hundreds of hours of equally incriminating footage left over from the project. Producers plan to use all of it in future productions that will encourage Canadians to respond to the urgent issues they’ve raised.

This article appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .

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