Cinéma du Réel review: Corporate Accountability (Jonathan Perel)

Editor’s note: Like so many events, the Paris-based documentary festival Cinéma du réel was cancelled because of the measures taken to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The festival, however, graciously provided accredited critics with a number of films online that were supposed to play in its various sections. Our own Cédric Succivalli will review a number of these this week.

Long static shots out of a car, shots of factories, production plants, and shipyards. A voice-over reads off a list of all crimes against humanity that have been committed there. On the surface Corporate Accountability, the fifth feature-length film of Argentinian director Jonathan Perel, is no more than that. The power of this documentary is in its words and what they imply, if not directly state. These words have never been printed, however. They are from a report by the Argentinian Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, compiled in 2015 but never made public. The report comprises 25 case studies of corporate accountability in the repression of workers in conjunction with Argentina’s military junta in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Most of the stories are the same: the compiling of lists. Abductions. Torture. Detainment on company grounds. And all with the knowledge and cooperation of management. The targets were always the same: union workers and political activists. Taken all together the stories paint the picture of a concerted effort of Argentina’s corporate elite and its military dictatorship to serve each other’s goals. In several cases company debt was assumed by the state as a tit-for-tat for giving up what the government considered ‘troublemakers’. This could go up to several hundreds of millions of dollars. The companies in question were predominantly domestic corporations, but also included large international automakers like Mercedes Benz, Ford, and Fiat. One notable exception highlighted in the film was the La Nueva Provincia newspaper, which shows the stranglehold on the free press the dictatorship also exerted.

The film opens with a subtle reference to this report never being published, by indicating it is missing an ISBN number. A small detail, but one with significant implications. Together with the fact that Perel was able to shoot outside these companies, meaning that they still exist, it shows that they have never been held accountable, but moreover that their power over the Argentinian government is still such that they can block the publication of a damning document for almost five years. Corporate Accountability sends a clear message: after 40 years, money still trumps justice. From a cinematic point of view the film is, simply because of its setup of static shots and voice-over and nothing more, an exercise that can get tedious. But as a document of political outrage, the power is in its simplicity.