July 30, 2004

Of Golden Arches and Golden Parachutes: Two New Docs Find Ways to Skin Corporate Fat Cats

From Morgan Spurlock's 'Super Size Me.' Photo: Avi Gerver.

At a time in our history when corporate scandals are commonplace and public distrust of major corporations is at an all-time high, two new and complementary feature documentaries arrive to challenge these most pervasive giants.

Already playing to sold-out crowds in major Canadian cities is The Corporation, a macro-focused, layered film that cleverly dissects and demystifies the familiar and powerful mammoths and their often negative and disturbing affect on the world's workforce, community and environment. A perfect bookend to The Corporation is the micro case study, Super Size Me, which follows one man's experiment, using himself as a litmus test to dramatize the effect of fast food on our increasingly obese nation. Both documentaries won awards at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, where they had their American premieres, and both are entertaining must-sees for their wit, humor and artistry. But it's their bone-chilling observations that linger long after you leave the theater.

"When you're making a film about the corporation, you're making a film about the world," says Jennifer Abbott, co-director and editor of The Corporation. "Our problem wasn't finding stories; it was deciding which ones to include in our film. For us it was really about finding the statue in the marble."

The Corporation is based on the ideas and themes found in the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan, co-creator and writer of the film. A professor of law at the University of British Columbia, Bakan met Mark Achbar at a social event in 1997. Achbar, a co-director and co-producer, with Bart Simpson, of The Corporation, is best known for the award-winning Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. He and Bakan shared information on the projects they were developing and found that they were both interested in the power of the corporation. They joined forces and started researching and writing proposals for fundraising efforts, which took three years and yielded support from the Canadian Television Fund, Rogers Documentary Fund, Rogers Telefund and Knowledge Network.

Achbar then brought Abbott on board, as the two had worked together on Two Brides and a Scalpel: Diary of a Lesbian Marriage, a video diary about Canada's first legally married lesbian couple. She also produced, directed and edited A Cow at My Table, a feature documentary about the controversy between agri-business versus animal rights.

"The book Joel was writing was the basis for the film, but it was truly a symbiotic process," Abbott notes. "The challenge for Mark and I was to take the ideas from the book and make them engaging, entertaining and emotionally powerful."

The Corporation as Psychopath

Utilizing the World Health Organization's diagnostic criteria and that of DSM IV, the standard tool used by psychiatrists and psychologists, the filmmakers conclude that the corporation as a legal person under the law would be classified as a psychopath—it's anti-social, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it doesn't suffer guilt, but it can evince the human qualities of altruism and caring. The narration, written by Bakar, Achbar and Harold Crooks, is interlaced with commentary from CEOs, scholars, thinkers and even a corporate spy, as well as with four case studies that demonstrate the corporation's psychopathic tendencies through the damage it inflicts on animals, human health, the workforce and the biosphere.

"We didn't want to make a film that would totally offend business people," Achbar maintains. "That's why the interviews are so important: It's the business people and CEOs who deliver the harshest criticisms."

CEOs like Ray Anderson of Interface, the world's largest commercial carpet manufacturer, and Sam Gibara, former CEO of Goodyear, are included in the film, along with management guru Peter Drucker; Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman; the director of the Center for Business and Government at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Ira Jackson; and even filmmaker Michael Moore. Many CEOs on Achbar's wish list (including those from ExxonMobil, Monsanto, McDonald's, Microsoft, Wal-Mart and BP-Amoco), however, declined to be interviewed. Other executives who did agree to be interviewed didn't make the cut. Achbar spent days in Washington, DC, interviewing the powerful lobbyists who influence legislation, as well as the CEO of Pfizer about what he expected to receive for his political contributions and how he justified them to his shareholders. But ultimately, he was so evasive that the filmmakers couldn't use the interview.

"We weren't really going after individuals because the target was the institution," Achbar allows. "But what impresses me even now is the candor of the interviews we did get, especially the CEOs who were so honest."

Inspired by filmmaker Errol Morris' sophisticated camera device, the Interrotron, Achbar superimposed his face onto the camera lens, allowing the subjects to interact with him face to face and speak directly into the camera and to the viewer. The interviews become much more intimate and powerful than the usual talking heads. Abbott started with 800 pages of interview transcripts, which she then ordered. She then selected the interviews and digitized them into a 33-hour assembly. In the end, about 40 out of the 70 total interviews made it into the film. But many of those discarded interviews could make it onto the DVD, which will be released in 2005.

"I just kept pushing the interviews until there was a structure and a narrative, until they provided the emotional impact we wanted," Abbott recalls. "It was a whittling-down process. Only after the narrative was crafted did we turn to the B-roll and more than 100 hours of archival footage."

Who Deserves a Break Today?

While The Corporation took seven years to bring to the screen, Morgan Spurlock, the producer, director and subject of Super Size Me, conceived his first feature film in 2002, and a year later it was completed. Watching the television news after a huge Thanksgiving meal at his family's house in West Virginia, he saw a story about two girls who were suing McDonald's over their obesity.

"At that time, and even now, you couldn't turn on the television without hearing about the obesity epidemic in America," says Spurlock. "I wanted to explore it in a way that would really make a statement. I also had to do something I was passionate about and something that I could control, since I made this film out of my pocket from start to finish."

As the founder of The Con, a New York-based production company, Spurlock has worked on commercials, music videos and television shows. But it was the profits generated from The Con production I Bet You Will, the hit Web show that later aired on MTV, that financed Super Size Me.

"McDonald's had responded to the girls' lawsuit by saying that their food was nutritious," Spurlock explains. "So I felt that if that's the case then I'll eat their food for 30 days straight and see what happens to me physically as well as mentally. I chose McDonald's because they are the giant and the most influential in that all the other fast food chains follow their lead."

Serving as guinea pig is a somewhat radical approach, but Spurlock felt that he really could only trust himself to remain true to the concept. "To rely on somebody else would have been difficult because it would be hard to know if he was sticking to the agreement when the cameras weren't rolling," he maintains.

To provide a point of reference, Spurlock finds several doctors to assess his health before going on the diet and to monitor him throughout his experiment. These doctors include Lisa Ganjhu, DO, a gastroenterologist and hepatologist; Stephen Siegel, MD, a cardiologist; Bridget Bennet, MS, RD, a nutritionist; and Daryl Isaacs, MD, an internal medicine specialist. "All three doctors were recommended to me, but Dr. Isaacs' office was also located behind my production office, which was convenient since I wanted to do as little walking and exercising as possible during the 30 days," Spurlock explains.

After receiving an excellent bill of health, Spurlock embarks on his journey and invites viewers to join him as he's eating breakfast, dinner and lunch at McDonald's in New York, as well as Houston—then the fattest city in America—and other cities across the country. Over the course of three months, the filmmakers—Spurlock and cinematographer Scott Ambrozy—logged 25,000 miles and shot 250 hours of footage. Even though he often speaks and looks in the camera, which makes the film accessible, being both inquirer and subject was sometimes difficult, especially as his health starts to deteriorate. "The biggest challenge for me was to keep focused, to keep a handle on everything-scheduling, arranging interviews-because it really was pretty much a one-man band," Spurlock recalls.

The key for him was working with people he trusted, including Ambrozy and editors Stela Gueorguieva and Julie Lombardi. "I told Scott what I wanted and then he would shoot it. Since we were friends we had this great dialogue off camera, too. All of us were able to brainstorm ideas and then execute them."

While most of the interviews were completed during his 30-day experiment, others, like the one with former US Surgeon General Dr. David Stacher, were arranged later due to the difficulty of scheduling. While many of his interviews are eye-opening, as is the gastric bypass surgery that he captures on camera, what's most compelling is Spurlock's reaction to the all-fast food diet. He gains 25 pounds, his cholesterol shoots sky-high and his enzymes indicate that his liver is starting to malfunction. It gets so scary that at one point Dr. Isaacs urges him to stop immediately. But he sticks it out. He also tries to contact McDonald's more than 15 times but is never able to interview anyone for the film. "Some people have asked me why I didn't storm McDonald's, and I respond by saying that's somebody else's movie," he asserts.

Most of the staffs in the McDonald's restaurants didn't even notice him or Ambrozy filming, since they were using a small digital camera. In a few cases, an employee would tell Spurlock that he wasn't allowed to film in the restaurant. "They probably thought we were tourists," Spurlock reflects. "We really had no problems getting the footage we needed. If we would have asked permission, they wouldn't have given it and we really didn't need it."

Spurlock is definitely influenced by filmmaker Moore, whom he recently met at the Full Frame Film Festival, but he set out to make his own film. "My film is a black comedy, really," he maintains. "I did not use a fire-and-brimstone tone; I used humor as a way to help people let their guard down and be receptive to all of this information we're presenting."

Imagery as Metaphor

Says The Corporation's Abbott, "We credit the viewer with a lot of intelligence, and we felt a responsibility to be engaging and witty and to challenge people intellectually. At the forefront of our film is the survival of the planet as we know it, and that is really serious. But humor is our way of diffusing some of the film's scariness."

"We also used the visuals to make the normal seem strange, to provide a shifted perspective where every image represents more than what is on the surface," Achbar adds.

"The bad apple," a phrase used by pundits during the Enron and WorldCom scandals, and Frankenstein become visual metaphors in The Corporation, as does an oil derrick. When Mark Moody-Stuart, former chairman for Royal Dutch Shell, talks about Shell's responsibility to the environment, narrator Mikela Mikael intones, "All the professed concerns about the environment do not spare Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other activists from being hanged for opposing Shell's environmental practices in the Niger Delta."

"The oil derrick resembles a gallows, and that's a very evocative image," says Abbott. "That's really how I would place images in the film for their emotional impact. We had a very low tolerance for things that were didactic or preachy."

There's another scene towards the end of the film, where Michael Moore talks about being the son of an automaker, yet building cars is "probably the single biggest reason why the polar ice caps are going to melt and end civilization as we know it." His voiceover underscores an image of a rusted-out and corroded car at the bottom of the lake, with fish swimming through its missing windows.

The filmmakers also use creative framing devices and graphics to organize the film and show how many choices they had when it came to presenting stories. If the topic was "Harm to Human Health," for example, a virtual camera slides along different subheads such as "Toxic Waste," "Pollution" and Synthetic Chemicals" before choosing one.

"We wanted to give the sense that there were any number of stories that we could have chosen, just like if you open the newspaper any day of the week, but we chose to tell you this one," Achbar explains. "It just provides a larger scope."

"Nonverbal communication is an important part of any film, and our soundscape definitely helped create the film's atmosphere," Achbar continues. "It's too bad there isn't more artistry like that; a lot of American-made documentaries seem to be striving so hard for legitimacy that they tend to conform to a format that they know is acceptable on PBS or the mainstream."

Spurlock uses the paintings of Ron English as an interstitial device, but they also add an eerie darkness to the film. An artist who satirizes pop culture, English paints on canvas and billboards, and some of his paintings are part of collections in the Whitney Museum in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Paris. Spurlock first saw one of English's billboards in the East Village and then visited his studio, where he was amazed at how many paintings already used McDonald's imagery—the Golden Arches and the Ronald McDonald clown face—with headlines like "Better Living Through Chemistry" or "PHAT FOOD." The only painting created specifically for the film was that of an obese Ronald McDonald, which was used for the film's poster at Sundance, where Spurlock won the Best Director award.

Timing is Everything

With their political and educational slants, both The Corporation and Super Size Me could not have arrived at a better time, during this election year. The World Cinema Documentary Audience Award winner at Sundance, The Corporation has also enjoyed popularity on the world festival circuit. The film makes its US theatrical premiere on June 4 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, followed by multi-city openings throughout the summer and fall. The Corporation aired as a three-part miniseries (slightly different from the feature version) on TV Ontario in February and March. Super Size Me made its theatrical debut last month through Roadside Attractions and Goldwyn Films and will continue to roll out through the summer. The film will air on Showtime sometime in early 2005.

But both films by design were meant to have a shelf life far beyond their theatrical and television releases. The Arlington, Virginia-based firm Keppler Associates, which specializes in professional speaking engagements, is already scheduling Spurlock on the lecture circuit, where he hopes to tour colleges, high schools and elementary schools and speak to both children and their parents. Inherent in these activities is the film's ability to impact others and promote change.

Film West is the educational distributor for The Corporation, which is already being used as part of the curriculum at the Richard Ivey Business School in London, Ontario. In addition, a professor at the University of Toronto is developing a teacher's guide to accompany the film and, according to Abbott, a journalist in Alberta is taking a group of CEOs to the film.

"The only way the film exceeded the million-dollar gross mark in Canada is that people have taken it upon themselves to help," Achbar asserts. "They go to our website, www.TheCorporation.com, and they agree to tell friends, pass out flyers, sign up on the mailing list and get involved."

Although McDonald's denies that Spurlock's film had any impact on its decisions, shortly after the Sundance premiere of Super Size Me in January, the fast food giant announced that it would stop "Super-Sizing" meals. The Center for Disease Control's announcement that in a few years obesity will pass smoking as the leading cause of preventable death was certainly a contributing factor as well. A few months later, in mid-April, only weeks prior to Super Size Me's theatrical release, McDonald's also launched an anti-obesity campaign that included new lower-fat meal choices for adults and children and the first ever Adult Happy Meals. The campaign also includes many initiatives for educating children on the importance of physical activity and healthy eating.

"To think that a little filmmaker can make a huge corporation like this sweat and question its business practices is a true testament to the power of filmmaking," Spurlock declares.

 

Shelley Gabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering entertainment, travel and culture.

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