Inside the belly of the beast


Jennifer Abbott’s entire career as a filmmaker and editor has been involved with challenging people’s perceptions. Her first documentary, “A Cow at My Table,” was on the horrors of factory farming, and Abbott met her co-director Mark Achbar while working as an editor on his documentary on lesbian marriages “Two Brides and a Scalpel.”

“The Corporation,” a huge hit in Canada (but not as big in that country to the South), has left Abbott assured of funding for her next project, but that doesn’t keep her from tending her organic garden on pristine Galiano Island. “I do interviews with Newsday or whatever in my rubber boots with dirt under my fingernails,” says the thirtysomething director and editor, with a laugh.

In Tokyo to promote her film, the vegetarian Abbott spoke with The Japan Times on making a lefty doc in the post-Michael Moore era.

How long did it take to put this film together?

It took almost seven years in total. Three and a bit to raise the funds, then three years to actually shoot and edit. It started when [producers] Mark Achbar and Joel Bakan met at a funeral, and they were both doing projects about globalization, and they realized that a lot of people are looking at globalization and the system as a whole, but no one was actually looking at the institution of the corporation. So that was the impetus.

I imagine you didn’t have any corporate funding.

No! Well, actually there’s one corporation that contributed, and that’s Rogers, and they’re forced by the Canadian government as a condition of their broadcast license to give out three grants of a hundred grand a year to documentary makers. So we do have a little bit. But for the most part it’s Canadian government/taxpayer funded.

Do you sense a difference in how easy it is to fund a documentary project before and after “Fahrenheit 9/11?”

It’s a great time to be a documentary filmmaker. And I think Michael Moore did pave inroads for doc makers, showing the general public that they can be just as engaging and emotionally powerful as narrative films. But our film, in Canada, was the top-grossing documentary in Canadian history. And now there’s definitely increased funding for feature docs in Canada as a result. I think our style is quite different from Michael Moore’s, though.

How can you fashion a film like this so it plays beyond the converted?

Well, it is a big challenge. There were a few things we did to attempt to do that. One, my father’s a business person, so a lot of times when I was making decisions, I’d think, “I wonder how he’d react to it.” And it’s not like I catered to a point-of-view like his, but it helped me to make a film that hopefully some corporate insiders won’t just refuse to engage with. Another approach was that we don’t demonize corporate insiders. We don’t paint these issues as black and white, or simplify them. Yes, they have responsibility, but we don’t just say, “You are bad.”

I was wondering what sort of counter-arguments you’ve received from viewers.

Well, some people say, what about all the good that corporations do? But this film’s not about the positive aspects of corporations. Ultimately, this institution is doing enormous harm, so much so that the entire planet is in jeopardy. This is our point-of-view. There’s already the other 90 percent of the media out there cheering on corporations, so this is a counterpoint.

One of the issues you bring up in the film is privatization, and the question of whether selling off public institutions to the highest bidder is good or not. When postal privatization in Japan became a big issue in the latest election, it was framed as a reform that would cut collusive ties between industry and government, but I’m very skeptical of that.

We should be. We didn’t use this part of Noam Chomsky’s interview, but he said, “It’s pure ideological fanaticism to claim that privatization is necessarily more efficient.” Like, look at health care in the U.S., where so much money goes to lawyers because insurance has become such a litigious sector. It’s so inefficient!

We must ask ourselves the question, “Do we want an institution, which we have no democratic control over, which is not transparent, whose most fundamental characteristic is self-interest — do we want them in charge of some of the most important services in our society?” I don’t. There are some big problems with government, but ostensibly, they’re supposed to safeguard the public good, and if they don’t, we can kick them out of power.

Is “balance” something that’s important to you when making a documentary, and how would you define that?

Well, I think true objectivity is impossible. It’s naive for journalists to think that one’s life experiences and point of view won’t inform their work. As a filmmaker, I care passionately about these issues, and objectivity implies a certain distance. But the only way you can make a documentary like this is if you care passionately about it — you wouldn’t stick around for as long and hard as it takes if you didn’t. I think we admit our point-of-view very readily: It’s a leftwing critique and a call to action.

But you also allow many corporate executives and such to speak their minds.

That is about respect. Every interview subject deserves to be treated fairly and to have what they say represented in the context they made it. But I think it’s about not wanting to simplify these issues, about authentic curiosity and not going in thinking we have all the answers. People do not want opinions thrust down their throat, and they know when that’s happening.

Well, it shows you’ve got enough strength in your arguments that you can put an alternate opinion up there and let it stand.

I also think it helps when insiders are critiquing the institution. So when [U.S. economist] Milton Friedman talks about the problem of externalities, that’s really important, and perhaps more so than when Noam Chomsky talks about it. Milton Friedman came on board really early, which helped when we approached other CEOs [about appearing in the film]. But CEOs of transnationals have enormous resources for their PR people, and some of them were quite good at interrogating us, saying, “What is this about?” We never misrepresented ourselves. But, like the IBM rep, they never asked us whether we were going to ask any questions about IBM and the Holocaust, so that’s in the film.

One thing I liked about the film was its positive message at the end.

Well, it was very important that we ended on a hopeful note. And it was the hardest part of the film to construct. I don’t think it’s naively hopeful; it isn’t going to be easy.

Corporations these days seem to be trying to escape from any sort of national identity. They are multinational in their operations, with money going off shore into tax havens. They’re being mobile and virtual.

Yeah, that’s one of the reasons governments have so little regulatory control. It’s a very important part of corporate power, that they don’t have to be subject to the laws of any one country.

There’s always this threat that they’ll move the jobs somewhere else. How can this be fought? Any counter-force would also have to be multinational.

That’s right. Marc Kingwell, who’s in our film, has proposed an international regulatory body. I mean, we have the WTO [World Trade Organization] now advocating on behalf of corporations, and we need something similar advocating on behalf of the public good, looking out for the interests of communities and the environment. Because right now our international bodies are totally complicit with the corporate agenda.

So many local governments give corporations all these incentives, like tax breaks, to set up operations. You would think they could demand a little bit in return, but it seems like the bargaining power of government is quite low.

I think the problem is not their bargaining power, but the political will. So many government leaders today totally believe in the neoliberal agenda, and they believe that what’s in the interest of corporations is in the interest of the public good. But more and more we’re seeing that the two don’t go hand in hand.

So tell me about your own lifestyle.

I live on Galiano Island. When I travel, people always ask, “Where do you live, New York or L.A.?” But it’s a very conscious choice. I have my editing suite in my house — I need to be out there in the natural world (laughs). I love my community; it’s just like paradise. The air is beautiful, I kayak and I have lots of close friends. I need that balance — when you deal with such heavy issues all the time, you need to remember the joy in the world.