TIFF ’20: Jennifer Abbott, Joel Bakan on their “unfortunately necessary” sequel to “The Corporation”

Vancouver-based filmmakers Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan are virtually returning to the Toronto International Film Festival 17 years after the world premiere of The Corporation to debut the film’s sequel. Where 2003′s The Corporation​ examined ...
September 14, 2020

Vancouver-based filmmakers Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan are virtually returning to the Toronto International Film Festival 17 years after the world premiere of The Corporation to debut the film’s sequel.

Where 2003′s The Corporation​ examined an institution within society, The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel offers an unflinching look into how corporate America is rebranding itself as a collection of socially conscious entities ready to tackle society’s problems, all while the wealth gap grows exponentially larger and income inequality soars to all-time highs.

While the 106-minute film contains within it a call for social justice it also explores such up-to-the-minute topics as the rise of far-right leaders, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and racial injustice.

The New Corporation is based on Bakan’s forthcoming non-fiction book The New Corporation: How ‘Good’ Corporations are Bad for Democracy​, which will be released on Sept. 22 by Penguin Random House Canada and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Ten years after the release of ​The Corporation​, ​Abbott and Bakan held an initial meeting with producer Trish Dolman in January 2015 to discuss the possibility of a sequel. That same month, producer Betsy Carson joined the team as Bakan began writing a treatment based off of ideas for his follow-up.

Research, development, fundraising and preliminary interviews took place from January 2015 through 2017. The crew began principal photography in early 2018 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland with post-production happening concurrently with filming. More than 1,100 archival clips were sourced over the two-year editing period. The film was completed in mid-August on the evening prior to TIFF’s submission cut off.

“We then thought we’d finished the film, but we opened the film back up to build COVID into it,” says Bakan. “We locked the film again, celebrated with a glass of wine, but then George Floyd was brutally killed by police and that ignited an uprising – we did what we could with that story to build it in and make it work as a very powerful ending.”

The New Corporation is a Grant Street production in association with Screen Siren Pictures. The film is presented by Telefilm Canada and the Rogers Group of Funds through the theatrical documentary program, in association with Bell Media’s Crave.

Bakan serves as writer, director and executive producer. Abbot is director and supervising editor. Betsy Carson and Trish Dolman are producers. The film is narrated by Charles Officer.

Realscreen spoke with Abbott (pictured below, left) and Bakan (right) about the film and navigating the challenges of producing a film in the midst of a pandemic. This interview is edited for space and clarity.

abbott, bakan

What can you tell us about why you decided on creating this sequel, and why now?

Joel Bakan: I started thinking about the sequel when I was sitting in the 10th anniversary screening of the first film, which was around 2013/2014. I talked to myself as I was sitting there, that we had made the film to contain and raise major questions about the dragon of corporate capitalism. Ten years out from The Corporation, that dragon was bigger, scarier, more fire-breathing, and more destructive, than it had ever been. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, The Corporation really didn’t work’. It didn’t do what it was supposed to do, and in fact it’s only gotten worse.

Not only that, but now the dragon of corporate capitalism was parading around as though it wasn’t a dragon, but it was this really nice friend that cared about the environment and people.

I’m a legal scholar, and I began looking at it through that lens. I started sketching out a book that tried to understand what had happened. That got the ball rolling; [I] started writing a film treatment, started looking for funding, then Jen came on and we went into serious production around 2017.

Jennifer Abbott: It was certainly not something I wanted to do when I first heard the idea floating around. In part that was because I was one of the directors plus the editor on the first film. And as the editor, I cut that film from 400 hours of footage and it was just such a monster of a film. I was in a state of near collapse once we released it. I felt a lot of pressure related to the sequel living up to the first iteration. I was also in the middle of making another film, which is also being released now, The Magnitude Of All Things, so I was quite reluctant.

But then Donald Trump was elected. For me, the veil came down, the pretense that government and corporations weren’t operating independently exploded and now they were rigging the system in plain view.

How have your experiences with The Corporation and Us and Them informed your work with a project like The New Corporation

JA: Really, all of my films have, at their core, what I call making the familiar strange. That is, taking socially constructed institutions and norms and casting a different light on them so the audience sees them differently, exposing their socially constructed nature.

For me, The New Corporation is, without question, a continuation of the work that I’ve been doing for 25 years. I am always drawn to what I feel are the most urgent social, political, and environmental issues of our day, and really exploring injustice in its dynamic and presenting.

How was the making of this film impacted by COVID-19? How have you as filmmakers been navigating the pandemic?

JA: We were very fortunate in the sense that we had completed most of production when the pandemic hit. At the same time, the pandemic was so relevant to our theme so to not include it would have almost rendered the film out of date before its release.

There were three areas in particular we needed to address. One was the way the pandemic laid bare the injustices of the system. The other is the way it was such a beautiful model for how humans can be at their best, contrary to the neo-liberal ideology that pegs us as individualist consumers, first and foremost. Here we were, many of us, acting so cooperatively, communally and altruistically.

Finally, [there was] the linkage between the destruction of nature with corporate capitalism being a primary driver of that, and the emergence of the transferring of disease from non-human animals to humans, and the root cause of that is the destruction of nature and industrial agriculture.

We couldn’t travel so we did what we called bunker interviews, or self-isolation interviews.

Outside of that, what were some of the biggest challenges that you encountered in making this film?

JB: A real challenge was getting access to the other side, getting access to people in the business world, getting access to Davos to be able to shoot there. It was a different challenge than the one we met in the first film, because now we were known entities.

One of the reasons we were successful in getting those interviews was because of what we’re talking about in the film — that corporations are representing themselves as the good guys now, and they wanted to tell that story. That seemed to work in terms of getting us some pretty good access in the corporate world.

What’s next for you as documentary filmmakers?

JB: I’ve got a few ideas of things that I want to investigate, but I think I’ll take a bit of a break. It’s been a six- or seven-year project of making a film and writing a book. I don’t really want to jump into making another film anytime soon, at least not within the next two or three weeks.

JA: My interest is moving more and more towards narrative films. I really, really enjoyed the process of directing the narrative component of The Magnitude of All Things. I have written a screenplay called Money and Other Love Stories but whether I pursue that or write another screenplay that I have in mind is still in the air. Whether or not I go off into a completely different field is also possible.

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