Sitdown is an Alchemy Film & Arts series of artist interviews, published to complement its exhibitions, residencies and other events.
Jonathan Perel’s Corporate Accountability was one of two features shown at Alchemy Live, the free worldwide stream of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival’s tenth edition.
Alchemy: Tell us about the publication from which Corporate Accountability takes its name.
Jonathan Perel: It’s a book published by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights of Argentina. It describes how 25 companies helped the dictatorship in the repression and disappearance of its own workers. That the state of Argentina is the one publishing the book is very important, because it’s not the film that is making the selection or investigating these companies, but the government itself.
Although the book is available and free online, very few printed copies exist, and it’s not really well-known. With the film I want to somehow make the book visible, and to build 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. It’s important to try to understand the dictatorship not only in terms of politics, but also as an economic plan.
And all the narration is lifted directly from the book? How important was it that you narrated only passages from the book?
Yes, everything you hear is read directly from the book. I start the film with literally the first page of the book and finish the film with its last paragraph. The book is quite long, it’s actually two volumes with a total of more than 1000 pages. But my narration consists of only the highlighted parts I marked while reading it. Since I didn’t have it in print, I recorded my voice reading these highlights to be able to hear them while driving to the locations to shoot. It was a very long trip, that took a few months and more than 14,000 kilometres. While driving I was able to hear my reading and remember details of each of the places.
Early in the process of making the film I decided to use these recordings as part of it. Highlighting the book was the first editing process. Then, when inserting the audio recording into the film, a further edit was needed. In this process I decided which information to leave, and although the book itself is already quite repetitive and systematic, my editing of the highlighted passages tended to present the information in a more organised way, focusing on the repetitions of certain aspects of the repression, like the involvement of the disappeared workers and union delegates, the handling of lists with names provided by the companies, or the transfer of private debt to the state.
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 thinking the world. But entertainment is here to maintain the state of things, to keep the profits as they are now.
There is a tension in the film between the more or less objective presentation of numbers and data on the one hand, and the presence of a subjective viewpoint behind the camera on the other hand. These shots of the car windscreen, and the dashboard, suggest a private eye or a detective taking notes from afar.
Many of my films are about constructing and completing a series. In this particular film 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 of 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, even pulled out. But I find it interesting, or at least honest, that the film shows, very precisely and 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 a marxist way of thinking, these companies are hiding what they do to maximise their profits; they are hiding precisely what happens inside the factory.
What was the concept behind the order of the sequences?
Very simple: I respected the order of the book. Again, I wanted to make the film as close to the book as possible. I will never get tired of stressing this idea: it’s a book published by the Ministry of Justice. It’s not me or the film making decisions to make the narration more fluid, more appealing to the audience, or nicer visually. Abide by the book was always the rule.
A few shots are maybe not so accomplished in terms of lighting or framing. And although each factory took me a lot of time to shoot, and there was nothing made in a hurry, in some cases that is the best image I could get and maybe it’s not good enough. In any other film, the few images that are not totally accomplished, you would just take them out. A close colleague and friend insisted that I cut some images. In the end, the book was a starting point, and now the film has its own existence, and you need to do what is right for the film and nothing more. But for me, what is right for the film was to be as close to the book as possible. It’s a very strange case of transposition. Usually a good film about a book is the one that manages to leave the book behind. This is not possible here.
Some of the companies here are more well-known, let’s say, to audiences outside of Argentina. It can be quite shocking when the Ford logo appears, for instance. Is this why you chose to show the logos?
Not really. Trying to shock the audience is not within my repertoire. Shocking is, again, some kind of entertainment, which I am no interested in. In the end, only three logos are known worldwide: Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Fiat. The other 22 are only shocking in Argentina. Most of them indeed quite shocking locally, because the owners of these companies are very well-known, and they are still running the country themselves.
Anyway, your point is very good, because the use of the logos was one of the first ideas of the film, and it was always present during the whole process. Since I wanted to use not the present logos but the ones from that period, and most of them do not exist digitally, I had to photograph them from old signs that I found on location while shooting – or from old advertisements in magazines, or even buying old products from those years. That’s why the logos have different textures and resolutions in the film.
For me, 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. I would say that they used the logos first.
Do you expect, or have you experienced, any pushback from these companies?
I would expect some kind of reparation from them, first to the victims and their families, and also to society. There are many kinds of reparation. We use this term in Argentina for the compensation in money the government has paid to the victims. Maybe the economic reparation is just one kind. Maybe they have documents, which could help investigate, that have not been disclosed. Just acknowledging their own acts and conducting further investigations would be a kind of reparation.
There is no way a reparation can be conclusive. There is always something unrepairable. But I believe in the never-to-be-ended process of trying to do so, and exercising different ways to accomplish this, always knowing all of them would be not a totally successful fulfilment.
This is an unusual film for you in that the camera is – very slightly – handheld. You ordinarily have a strict tripod-only policy.
This film has broken many of my previous strict policies, not only that one! The no-voiceover policy, or the regulated duration of the shots. That’s what policies are for, to be able to discard them at some point. In this film the strictness comes from the book and this idea to be strictly close to it. That’s the policy of this film. The rest of the decisions can be less rigid.
I think the handheld camera works together with my voice. They are two sides of a same coin. I believe that the handheld camera alone would not work in an observational film, because it feels more like a distraction than a point of view. And my voiceover on rigid tripod shots would also feel out of place, because it’s not a serious and formal narration, but a rather intimate, close and personal recording. But the two elements together create something different. If my previous films were what is called ‘observational documentary’, what would this be? Some kind of augmented observation?
The original idea of the camera being handheld had to do with a sense of urgency. But this is again associated with a kind of political direct cinema that I don’t feel comfortable with. The truth is, it took me a lot of time to make these images, and I have repeated all of them many times, over a few days, and with different kinds of lighting. There is nothing urgent going on in front of the camera, that needs to be captured before it is over never to happen again.
There is lastly a more practical explanation to this. I was not able to use a tripod inside the car, because I needed to be able to lift up and take down the camera very quickly, if approached by the security personnel of the factories. A tripod would make things even more difficult inside the car. This was more like a run and gun method.
You chose to narrate the film with your own voice, and there’s a lot of it, as opposed to someone else’s. Why?
It’s a performative gesture. I made this film alone in all aspects: not only the camera, sound and editing, but also producing, driving, cooking. It just made total sense that the voice was also my own. After editing for some months and not getting awkward or uncomfortable about hearing my voice, I felt it was working.
I have recently participated as an actor, let’s say a kind of performer, in two of Heinz Emigholz’s films, Streetscapes [Dialogue] and The Last City. I believe this experience might have allowed a new possibility within my set of tools.
I understand the sensation that there is a lot of voiceover, because there is no moment in the film without it. Of course, the shots were longer, and the effort was to reduce the text from the book, to make the film as short as possible. But then, when the book was already condensed, my first attempt while editing was to make the shots longer than the voice, to continue after or start before, and to give the image some breathing room, some space to hear the sound from the location. Actually, the shots were really great just with sound and no voice, but that was just another film. For this one, when the reading of the book was over, there was nothing else there to justify that the shot continues. It felt like a detour away from the book. And again, I wanted to stay as attached to it as possible.
Another tension in the film is that between the historical period it refers to, and the very present-day settings of these factories. The collective trauma lingers; it is a key part of the continuing relationship between fascism and capitalism, between big business and worker suppression…
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 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.
The film has a consistent look. How did you approach and capture this particular look?
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. You can also see this in my previous films: Toponymy or El Predio deliberately avoided the point of view from above.
Cinema started with workers leaving the factory. 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.
Image: Corporate Accountability by Jonathan Perel