TIFF 2020 Women Directors: Meet Jennifer Abbott – “The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel”

Jennifer Abbott is a Sundance and Genie award-winning filmmaker who has been making films about social, political, and environmental issues for 25 years. She is best known as one of the directors and editor of “The Corporation,” frequently described as the most successful documentary in Canadian history. She also co-directed, co-wrote, and edited “Us & Them,” co-wrote and edited “Sea Blind,” and executive produced and edited “I Am.” In 2020, Abbott will release two feature documentaries: “The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel” and “The Magnitude of All Things.”

“The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel” will screen at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, which is taking place September 10-20. Joel Bakan co-directed the film.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

JA: “The New Corporation” is the sequel to 2003’s “The Corporation,” the unlikeliest of hits featuring an economic institution as its central antagonist. For the first film, we asked the question, “Given the corporation is legally considered a person, what kind of person is it?” Our answer: “A psychopath.” The sequel riffs on this diagnosis but goes further, exploring the system the corporation operates within and the ideology that buoys it.

Corporations are arguably the main drivers of the existential crises we face today, including the unravelling of democracy, vast inequality, and climate catastrophe. We explore these crises and this critical moment in time but more importantly, the groundswell of resistance challenging corporate hegemony and the destruction of the world as we know it. 

W&H: What drew you to this story?

JA: I wasn’t drawn but compelled. After co-directing and editing the first film, “The Corporation,” I couldn’t imagine making another film of its breadth. Corporate reach knows few limits and the stories we could have chosen to illustrate our ideas were seemingly infinite. That’s why in the end I cut the film from 400 hours of footage. It took so much from me and out of me, the idea of trying to wrestle another monster of a film like it to the ground — well, I wasn’t sure who would win, me or the monster. 

And then Donald Trump was elected. The veil came down. There was no longer even the pretense that governments and corporations were separate. With Trump’s election, everything got spat into the open: the system was rigged in favor of the plutocratic class and now it was in plain view. And although Trump is a symptom and not the cause of many of the problems we face today, suddenly for me, the world was a very different place and there were compelling reasons to make the sequel.

So I joined with my key collaborators, writer and co-director Joel Bakan and editor Peter Roeck, to make “The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel.” 

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

JA: The “Corporation” films don’t shy away from complexity and have a deep respect for the viewer. My co-director Joel Bakan and I believe in the power of film to contribute to essential public discourse about the most pressing social, economic, political, and environmental issues of the day.

It may sound naïve to some, but our first film showed us that films can change the world. I hope it doesn’t sound lacking in humility, but we hope this one will too. 

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JA: “Gah!” became our mantra. Enough said.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

JA: Betsy Carson and Trish Dolman were our producers and secured funding. The process of making the film seemed interminable — we opened it back up to include a COVID section and a George Floyd uprising section — so they continued brilliantly to raise funds over and over with Joel Bakan stepping in at one point to do so as well.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

JA: I’ve self-identified as a feminist since I was 14 and have been involved in various social justice movements since then. I thought I’d become a human rights lawyer. My first day in law school I panicked. Legal texts put me to sleep. I wanted to do something in the service of justice but also creative. Three days into law school I quit and decided to become a filmmaker.

I took a few filmmaking courses, but mostly I am self-taught. I released my first feature doc, “A Cow at My Table,” about factory farming, five years later. It was made on a shoestring budget, with me teaching myself along the way, and landed me in jail for a night, facing criminal charges for filming on slaughterhouse property.

Since then, I’ve dedicated myself to filmmaking as both an art form and a way to expose and challenge injustice in its many dynamic and presenting forms. 

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

JA: Best: Like so many people my age, Joseph Campbell’s “The journey is the end.” Also virtually anything written by 13th-century Zen priest Dōgen Zenji, as cryptic his tenants for living sometimes are.

Worst: Hmmm, how about the full encyclopedic collection of what we might call “Western Thought from Descartes to Ayn Rand”? Certainly not all but many Western thinkers got so much wrong about what it means to be human and how to live a meaningful life. I’ve spent a great deal of my life deconstructing their bad advice.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

JA: I’d say trust yourself and develop your own directing style even if it’s contrary to the traditional top-down hierarchical directing model. Generally, I’d say my directing style is more collaborative. I have an extremely clear and strong vision, but I appreciate soliciting and benefiting from the skills and experiences of my key creative collaborators.

When everyone feels respected for what they bring to a film, you can achieve so much more. 

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

JA: Jane Campion’s “The Piano” because it was such a powerful, beautiful, and unusual film and the first narrative feature directed by a woman I saw at a formative time in my life. 

Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” because the feeling I had taking my then 11-year-old twin daughters to it was sheer elation. Unlike myself, they would grow up watching films with strong female leads who had agency. 

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

JA: I was lucky enough to have completed production on two films when the pandemic hit. So, far from being idle, I had two films in post-production: “The New Corporation” and “The Magnitude of All Things,” about climate change and ecological grief, which I was writing, directing, editing, and doing sound design for. I had plenty to do!

I’m also a single mom of three kids who were suddenly no longer at school, so yes, I was deeply immersed in creative work and also challenged to the core trying to make it all work. 

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

JA: I am so inspired by the uprising after the brutal murder of George Floyd, especially the momentum, strength, and effectiveness of its challenge to systemic racism. The world will never be the same — let’s hope anyway.

I absolutely support inclusion riders and BIPOC-initiated policy changes regarding allocation of funds. I also feel those of us who are not BIPOC need to ask some difficult questions and do some deep listening: How are we as non-BIPOC filmmakers complicit? Is it time for some of us to step aside? What are emerging and established BIPOC filmmakers telling us about how we can be allies? It’s also time to expose the white savior hero narrative for what it is, which to some degree is already making its way into popular discourse. Seth Meyers did a brilliant sketch about it. 

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