Jonathan Perel's Corporate Accountability is showing exclusively on MUBI starting October 13, 2021 in the series Undiscovered. This introduction is sourced from a conversation between Perel and Michael Pattison first published by Alchemy Film & Arts in April 2020.
Corporate Accountability is a film based on a book that was published by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. It describes how 25 companies helped the dictatorship in the repression and disappearance of its own workers. Being the state of Argentina the one publishing the book is very important, because it’s not that the film is making a selection or investigating these companies, but the government itself.
Although the book is available online, very few printed copies exist, and it’s not really well-known. With the film I want to make the book visible, and to create an image for it. An image that will connect the past with the present. To show these same companies today, in most of the cases still working and fuming smoke out of their chimneys. To try to understand the dictatorship not only in terms of politics, but also as an economic plan.
In many of my films I am asked something like, "Why not give more information?" But I make a very conscious and difficult effort to give as little information as possible, while always trying to make sure this information is enough for the audience to understand. The problem is that cinema usually does the work for the audience, facilitating the process for them. And I don’t believe in this kind of cinema. I prefer a film that gives the audience space to work together in the construction of the meaning. The information is out there, and the work should continue after the film is over. Of course, this implies accepting that the meaning of a film is multiple and open, and there is no way a work of art can deliver a message transparently to its audience. But many filmmakers still want to secure a meaning for their films. This is cinema as entertainment, which I am not interested in. For me, cinema should be a tool to question and modify the world, to propose and try to build alternative ways of imagining the world. But entertainment is here to maintain the state of things, to keep the profits as they are now.
Usually my films are about constructing and completing a series. In this particular one it was more important than ever before, that the series has to be completed. I needed to shoot all the factories mentioned in the book, to make the film as close to it as possible. I couldn’t afford to have one of them missing, because it wasn’t me or the film deciding which ones to include. It’s the book that is making the selection of companies.
The idea to shoot from inside the car was the "device" that allowed me to do it without asking for permission to the factory owners. This undercover point of view is of course not an artificial stage, but the real way in which these images were accomplished. But I find it interesting, or at least honest, that the film shows straightforward to its audience, the way it was made. It’s not that I am shooting with the camera hidden, and the spectator cannot see this. I am not hiding my mechanism in the film. On the contrary, I am deliberately showing it. Hiding the mechanism is the way of Hollywood, and the way capitalism works. In Marxist terms, these companies are hiding what they do to maximize their profits; they are hiding precisely what happens inside the factory.
The use of the logos was one of the first ideas of the film, and it was always present during the whole process. But not really to shock the audience. Shocking is some kind of entertainment, which I am no interested in. I believe the most important thing about these logos—and this was probably the main starting point for the film—is how the companies made the lists of workers to be abducted on paper letterheaded with their own logos. Or how they provided the military with company vehicles that had logos on the doors, to kidnap workers at their homes. How can I not use the logos in the film, if they already used them for these criminal purposes?
The very first idea of this film was to show factories still working. That was the key aspect of it: they won. I like to think about the film as a tool to connect past and present. As two layers superimposed on the same image, cross-dissolving from one to the other constantly, without either imposing itself. It works as an Angelus Novus. Like Walter Benjamin described Paul Klee’s painting: looking towards the past, but the rest of the body as if trying to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. When we look at the past, it’s to discuss and build the future. It needs to be addressed what these big companies did in the past to benefit from their dominant position in the present.
I shot only at dawn. It’s a very short moment of the day that lasts only seven or eight minutes. Before that is too dark, after that is too bright. The artificial lights of the streets and cars are still on, like during the night. But the sky is already visible. And if I couldn’t get the shot right, I just needed to wait 24 hours to try again. I wanted to be there at this moment of the day not because it’s nice for the image, or at least not only because of that, but because I associate this time with the moment the workers arrive. In many of the cases it’s described how the workers were abducted when entering the factory. I wanted this film to be on the ground level, close to the workers. It would have been easy to shoot this film with a drone. But that point of view from above belongs to surveillance and a panoptic view.
Cinema started with workers leaving the factory. Harun Farocki wrote about this: cinema is about what happens outside the factory, it’s about entertainment and about making the audience be ready to get back to its position inside the factory without protest. In my film you might be waiting to see workers coming out, but they won’t. These bodies are disappeared.