What can make a giant tremble? When a penniless student group gets a threat from New York lawyers – in this case, Coca-Cola’s lawyers – on account the students want to show a film condemning human rights abuses, the optics suggest that the giant has something to hide. ‘Screening truth to power’, it seems, has its consequences.
Earlier this month, Coke threatened legal action to prevent the screening of a new documentary film The Coca-Cola Case. The $141 billion company (with annual revenues of $28 billion) threatened a small non-profit media-arts group called Cinema Politica which shows documentary films for free at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec and through a network of independent locals across Canada, in the United States, and in Europe and Latin America.
(For the record, I volunteer help for CP and my colleague here at Art Threat Ezra Winton is one of the founders. Let’s just say this story hits pretty close to home …)
What may have the soft drink giant so jittery is that the film is slated to be shown at 24 network locals from Halifax to Stockholm in an upcoming international tour co-sponsored by one of the film’s producers, the respected National Film Board of Canada. Seventeen of those screenings are located on campuses. Coca-Cola is well known for the agreements made with universities for the exclusive sale of Coke products.
Students want a chance to see the documentary and to decide for themselves not only about the fairness of the film, but also about the fairness of Coca-Cola’s business practices. It is David and Goliath yet again, this time a corporate giant fending off filmmakers, activists, students and – as the film makes out – workers and union leaders. And, like the Bible story, it seems this Goliath too is the one facing the rougher ride.
So what is it Coke doesn’t want you to know?
According to the documentary and according to lawsuits brought against the corporate leviathan, its rise to global corporate soda-pop kingship has been part and parcel of a systematic campaign of kidnapping, intimidation, torture and even murder in its aggressive hostility towards workers and unions in some regions.
The film focuses on Coke’s business strategies in Colombia, Guatemala and Turkey, by following two human rights lawyers and their accusations of human rights abuses in a lawsuit before the U.S Federal Court. In Colombia, for example (and this according to Business Week, no less) in 1996, a group of armed men kidnapped a union leader representing workers at a Coke bottling plant, torched the union offices and shot and killed Isidro Segundo Gil, a member of the union’s executive board. Then they camped outside the bottling plant for two months demanding workers resign from the union.
Not surprisingly, the union folks allege that Coke was involved. The company denies the charges. It is admittedly hard to imagine why in the real world a paramilitary group would randomly attack the union without Coke’s backing. And, since then, again according to Business Week, eight other unionists have been murdered, 65 have received death threats, and 50 have been forced into hiding.
The organizer’s at Cinema Politica were surprised by the letter threatening legal action. According to executive director Svetla Turnin, the network has screened well over 200 films but has only encountered legal intimidation in one other instance. A couple of years ago, the owners of a sugar plantation in the Dominican Republic unsuccessfully tried to bully the network away from a film that accused the plantation of gross exploitation of workers. Turnin says the network was within its legal rights to show the film, and it did. Coca-Cola finds itself with some unsavory bedfellows in its fight to silence public criticism.
Considering that the network’s motto is “Screening truth to power”, the organizers do consider the truth of the films they show and are concerned about filmmaker accountability. But their concern falls within a wider analysis of a mediscape and public discourse that tends to favour some kinds of biases over others.
“We program documentaries that offer critical perspectives on stories and issues that have had either little or no coverage in the mainstream or that have been grossly misrepresented,” Turnin explains. “We offer an alternative to dominant narratives on everything from human and labour rights violations, to corporate green-washing, to sex work, copyright, first nations issues and occupation and imperialism.”
Their goal is as much to entertain as it is to inform as it is to stimulate interest and discussion about matters of public concern. “We also try to curate the most independent and critical works while providing a space for discussion and debate, therefore leaving space for our audiences to interpret truth perspectives and critically engage with the representations they see on the screen.”
And while Concordia University – home of the screening this Monday that is the subject of the letter from Coke’s lawyers – doesn’t have an exclusive product agreement with Coke (they have one with Pepsi), Turnin says the film raises issues about corporate presence on university campuses that students everywhere should be thinking about.
“Canadian universities have started to look into contracting companies that stick to fair labour practices,” says Turnin. “Some student bodies, such as UBC, have fought against corporations that had pressured the administration to eliminate water fountains in university buildings so that they can sell their bottled water.”
Perhaps Coke’s biggest fear is that their actions – in far away places like Guatamala and Columbia – might have real repercussions closer to home, if people knew about them. According to Turnin, “Universities in Norway and in Canada (Guelph comes to mind) have kicked Coke off campus.” The optics from a marketing and PR perspective must be terrible.
The issues raised in the film tour will also touch on questions about the future of university education. Says Turnin, “It is important to raise awareness about the issues at hand and challenge people to look into who’s monopolized their schools.”