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'The New Corporation' looks at false corporate claims of social responsibility


TORONTO — For many filmmakers, COVID-19 has derailed their projects. But for the Canadian co-directors of "The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel," it actually added to their themes, and the two worked feverishly to incorporate the pandemic in time for the Toronto International Film Festival.

Premiering Sunday at TIFF, the up-to-the-minute documentary by Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott is the followup to 2003's "The Corporation" and looks at how companies' attempts to rebrand themselves as socially responsible actually "threatens democratic freedoms."

The film touches on everything from social services to climate change and inequality, so when the pandemic struck, it related to the entire narrative. As such, the film has in-person interviews filmed pre-pandemic, and video conference chats with experts shot after the novel coronavirus hit.

"COVID laid bare both the injustices of the system and the problems of the system," Abbott said in a recent interview. "Related to climate change, I think it is a wake-up call. People don't think that the pandemic is related to climate change, but at their root, both have our disrespect of nature and the destruction of nature. So in fact, they are quite related."

COVID-19 has also revealed that "the ideology that corporations have been promoting over the last 40 years — of a diminished social state, of privatization, of deregulation, of slashing taxes, of slashing spending — doesn't work," said Bakan.

"One of the great experiments that shows that, is to compare what's happened in the United States to what's happened in Canada in terms of COVID. Canada is hardly perfect. We've had our own sort of attacks on the social state and our own neoliberal tendencies. But we haven't gone nearly as far down that path as the United States has."

Compared to other countries, Canada has dealt with COVID relatively successfully, said Bakan. By contrast, it's been dealt with "very unsuccessfully" in the U.S., where "the entire public infrastructure of health, of social services, of social provision, of social equality has been decimated by 40 years of corporate attacks on the social state." 

Another current event the filmmakers incorporated: The anti-Black racism protests and social justice movement arising from the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May.

The racial reckoning is an example of how individuals can be agents of change by coming together in a time of extreme despair and systemic problems like racialized capitalism, said Abbott.

"I don't think we can underestimate how critical this moment in time is," she said, "and how critical it is that we take actions and resist the trajectory we're on."

Where the first film looked at corporate power and the economization of every aspect of life, the sequel examines how, since the 2008 economic collapse, corporations have been claiming to be socially responsible while playing down their attempts to turn a profit.

The election U.S. President Donald Trump put the development of the new film "into warp speed," said the filmmakers.

"Now we had a president who was kind of indistinguishable, and presented himself as indistinguishable, from a corporate CEO, and who was celebrating the fact that he would run the country as a corporate CEO would; and who, in all kinds of really problematic ways, remained tied to his business interests in ways that no president in history had," said Vancouver-based Bakan, who also wrote a book to accompany the new film.

"I think Trump is the culmination of 40 years of neoliberalism, as some people call it," said Abbott. "You can track a rise in hyper individualism, you can track increased marketization, you can track increased distrust of government, increased inequality."

The Crave-bound film touches on other issues including links between corporations and government, and the privatization of everything from water to classrooms and novel coronavirus testing.

"I think one of the important theses of the film is that corporations are presenting themselves as solutions to the world's most pressing problems, including climate change. And one of our points is, 'Don't believe that. They are not going to lead us out of the messes that we're in, including climate change,'" said Bakan.

"If we're going to solve problems like climate change and the other problems that we have in this world — inequality, racial injustice, democratic breakdown — we're going to need to do that through democratic institutions; we're going to need to do it through scientific evidence, through dispassioned attempts to understand what the problems are and what needs to be done to solve them."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 12, 2020.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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