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The top Public Health movies: The Corporation

public health films - corpDirectors: Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott
Duration: 145 minutes
Year: 2004
Key words: Corporate power, globalisation, environmental impact
Summary: The nature of corporations and their impacts on people and the environment worldwide are explored.

Degree of public health theme coverage: This documentary examines how corporations developed historically (mainly in the USA); how the modern corporation has the legal rights of an individual; issues around corporate responsibility; and how individuals and communities have responded. The problems of corporate power are explored in terms of the diagnosis of the corporation having a “psychopathic personality disorder” (eg, callous lack of concern for others etc). Some of the many case studies explored have public health related components eg,:

  • Antibiotic use in agribusiness and the entry of antibiotics into the food supply and the issue of increased antibiotic resistance.
  • The use of bovine growth hormone in cattle.
  • The privatisation of a city water supply in Bolivia by a corporation (with impacts on access for the urban poor).
  • Various other examples around pollutants and climate change.
  • How corporations impact on developing countries with implications for food security etc (eg, terminator seed technology). Score=3/5

Sophistication of analysis of public health content: A diverse range of issues regarding corporations and societal responses are covered. Different perspectives were given – including from critics of corporations, those supporting privatisation and corporate leaders themselves. Some of the commentators were very expert in their fields (eg, Chomsky), but some might be regarded by some viewers as more polemic (eg, Michael Moore). The DVD cover notes “starring 7 CEOs, 3 VPs, 2 whistleblowers, 1 broker, 1 spy”. There are also environmental activists, journalists and academics interviewed. Nevertheless, some of the advantages of corporations are not explored – eg, how they can achieve economies of scale to cheaply produce goods that society values (eg, some vaccines and pharmaceuticals, certain foods etc). Score=4/5

Potential for empowerment and use of advocacy: The movie gives a sense of the vast power of modern corporations. Nevertheless, there were case studies of what individuals, organisations, and mass “people power’ could do to constrain or oppose corporate activity (eg, changes to sweat shop labour, an end to privatised water in a city, a community imposed limit on fast-food chains etc). It was explained that governments have the power to act against corporations. Score=4/5

Persuasiveness of the movie: As a documentary that covered a wide range of issues in some depth the movie seems fairly persuasive. The diagnosis of corporations as having “psychopathic personality disorders” seems to work fairly well (but some viewers could find it a bit stretched at times). But the movie gives more context to this theme with discussions around legal structures, relationships with politicians and the media, and structural issues (eg, accountability of corporations only to shareholders and not society). Score=4/5

Engagement and cinematic quality: The movie is well structured and maintains a good pace. Some of the case studies are woven throughout and this works well – including the success stories of societal responses to corporate activities. Score=3/5

Total score = 18/25

Questions for discussion:

  1. Do these issues about corporations seem relevant to the country you live in?
  2. How can governments constrain the power of trans-national corporations while ensuring that society benefits from certain corporate activities?

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