When documentary film producer and director Bart Simpson joined forces with writer Joel Bakan and directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott 12 years ago to investigate the nature and rise of the dominant institution of our time, he had no clue the resulting film, “The Corporation,” would earn more than two dozen international film awards and become the most successful Canadian documentary of all time.
The Vancouver native moved to St. John’s in 2005 to fill a temporary position with the Documentary Organization of Canada’s (DOC) Atlantic chapter and wound up staying more than six years.
In that time he involved himself with several projects, including the documentary film “Bananas!,” the expose of the Dole Food Company’s harmful treatment of Nicaraguan plantation workers that stirred legal controversy and ended with a dropped lawsuit against the filmmakers.
He also began working toward a PhD in Film by Practice at the U.K.’s University of Exeter and currently lectures part time at Memorial University (MUN).
With plans to move back to Vancouver next month, and given “The Corporation” was recently named to a few Top 10 lists related to understanding the global Occupy movement, I met with Simpson to talk about the film and its role in understanding a major part of contemporary society.
Q: What was the goal or intent of “The Corporation”?
A: The elevator pitch was “The history, impact and possible futures of the modern business corporation.” So that’s what we used a lot when we were trying to get interviews. It sounds fairly benign but also it’s true. That early on you don’t really know what the film is going to turn out to be, so the goal is to get as many high-level people as possible to participate so the film can start to take shape. It was the CEOs and the economists and people who were, for us, the more (difficult) approaches. It’s not like we were out to attack anyone at all. It’s like, let’s just create a discussion here. And some people agreed to that. Some people didn’t.
Q: Can you explain the idea expressed in the film that corporations have the same legal rights as a human being?
A: There was a judicial decision in (1886) in the U.S.-and (Noam) Chomsky outlined this a bit in the film-where basically a judge decided that corporations had the same rights as a person. And so it became legally identified as a person.”
Q: Explain a bit about how the film investigates the corporation in a psychiatric framework.
A: It was Joel’s idea, and a very good one. The idea was, if the corporation is legally defined as a person then it sort of begs the question to what kind of person it is. So we analyzed a lot of the aspects of corporate behaviour as exemplified by a few companies. What kind of harms are done to the environment and to people? All these kinds of things. And we graded against the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is a group of documents that the World Health Organization (WHO) uses as a standard to determine various psychoses. So the thesis that Joel felt was appropriate is, if you take the corporate form and put it on the couch, and then use the same criteria that you’d use for a person, then you could determine that the corporate form is psychopathic in nature.
Q: This is one of the big questions people have about the nature of corporations, banks and big entities that are made up of lots of people. There are actually people at the top who make decisions, like CEOs, and surely they must understand the consequences of their actions.
A: The idea (presented in the film) is that CEOs are kind of hamstrung because of the way the system is set up. They are legally obligated to create profit and that’s it. If there’s a choice between creating profit for your shareholders and being an environmentally-minded nice person, as a corporation you have to choose the former. Because otherwise you’re operating against the way things are set up. So it’s a no-win situation for the CEOs — and I’m not saying you can absolve everybody of responsibility in those positions. But it’s kind of interesting that, for publicly trading corporations, we’ve built it into our system that that’s what’s going to happen. Limited liability, right?
Q: In the big picture, how do you see the film as fitting into this sort of growing public consciousness where people seem to be becoming more aware of their environment and how the world is working in this period of globalization?
A: We’ve been very lucky in the way that it was absorbed into certain parts of Canada’s education system. There were high school teachers in Ontario, for example, who saw the film, were totally struck by it and by their own accord wrote a series of lesson plans all about the film. There’s also a university in Ontario that used it in a course for (business) students. You can’t think of a better place for it to be, really, than in an environment where the business leaders of tomorrow are being trained.
And now we’ve been on a couple Top 10 list for film that help explain the birth of a movement. So it’s both beautiful and humbling, and exciting, to think that we played a role in some way in that. Now that people are asking a lot of these questions on larger scales, the beauty of the film is that we wanted it to have a long shelf-life, so there’s a lot of questions that are fairly timeless about how we organize the corporate form.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Occupy movement?
A: It’s funny because most times you would think it would have ended by now, but it’s not. It’s springing up everywhere.
I think it’s fantastic. Some people complain (that) the problem with the Occupy movement is that the focus is so nebulous a lot of the time. But that’s the beauty of it. I mean, it’s people talking to each other to try and come up with solutions to how we can change the environment in which we live. And that takes time and it takes money and it takes compromise and all these things, and I think maybe those questions are really starting to hit people who are reading it from the outside, who aren’t really participating. I think that’s the big question: What clear communications are going to be received by Joe and Jane Average? Hopefully it will inspire them to ask some questions and to move forward and, I don’t know, it’s sort of hard to predict.
The interesting thing is people are trying to come up with ways to define it. You can see media’s trying to define it, business is trying to define it — everybody’s trying to put a name on this thing so that they can compartmentalize it and say, OK, this is what we’re dealing with.
As part of its documentary screening series, MUN environmental and sustainability advocacy group Project Green will host a free screening of “The Corporation” tonight at
6 p.m. in Room 2018B of the Education building on the MUN campus.