In an episode of the satirical cartoon South Park, a new Wal-Mart comes to town. Initially, everyone is delighted with this new arrival, but soon all the local stores go bust and the town centre becomes deserted. South Park's residents then decide to boycott Wal-Mart, but they find themselves uncontrollably drawn to the store, unable to stop themselves from shopping there. Eventually they realise that "the Wal-Mart" is more than just a supermarket; it has a life of its own, sinisterly luring in customers with its irresistibly low prices. The Wal-Mart must be destroyed, but when a group of residents run around the supermarket to accomplish this mission, the store magically lowers its prices to distract them. "This screwdriver set is only $9.98," says one. "I can't make it boys. You're going to have to go on without me. This bargain is too great for me!"
In his latest documentary Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price, director Robert Greenwald doesn't explicitly state, as one South Park resident does, that Wal-Mart is "like some mystical evil force." But his portrayal of the awesome degree of power Wal-Mart wields is nevertheless devastating. The opening scene shows a packed shareholders' meeting applauding Wal-Mart CEO, Lee Scott, for minutes on end. Such is their zeal, they could be mistaken for a cult following. Scott tells them, "I promise you this: we're going to stay the course. And this company is going to continue to grow."
It is this conviction in Wal-Mart's own sense of purpose, and its desire for growth at any cost that Greenwald seeks to expose. However, this documentary is more than an exposé of bad business practices. It also explores, though interviews with grassroots campaigners and union workers, how the world's largest retailer and the largest private employer in the US, can be confronted.
Indeed, the story behind the film and the impact it has subsequently had is itself a lesson in how a powerful corporation can be successfully challenged, just as Wal-Mart's response to the film is a demonstration of corporate might. Much of the film's strength lies in its innovative distribution channels, building on methods previously employed with Greenwald's films Uncovered: the War on Iraq and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism.
"The intent was always that grassroots distribution would be the primary way we would reach people in the US," Greenwald tells me. "This film is very much married to the groups involved in the organisation. Now, after Uncovered and Outfoxed, the organisers and the activists have seen what a great tool private screenings can be. In politics, it's not always easy to get people into a room. I love reading, but you're never going to fill a room of political activists reading. Put something on TV and it's so much easier."
An American tale
Although he had been making films for many years, the conversion to documentary maker and political activist came late in Greenwald's career. "I was affected a lot by 9/11," he says. "In the US, it was amazing how quick the mood of the country went from this pain to a desire for revenge. It felt like only I, my family, and a few other people didn't want to go out and kill somebody."
When friends of Greenwald's were working on the 2002 documentary Unprecedented: the 2000 presidential elections (of which he ended up being the executive producer), he saw first-hand the effectiveness of political filmmaking. He also saw how advances in digital technology had made documentary making so much easier and cheaper. If he had made Uncovered in the traditional narrative fashion, he explains, it would have taken years. Instead, he decided to make it as a documentary.
After he had completed Uncovered and Outfoxed, he explains, it became obvious to him that there was a sense within the US people felt that centres of power such as the government and sections of the media weren't adequately monitored. "I've had a lot of responses to different movies: people like them, or they don't. But at the end of these films, people actually came up and thanked me. In the US, people had an intuition that they weren't getting the full story. Here they saw it put together."
Greenwald's critics would argue, however, that the US public isn't getting "the full story" when it comes to his polemic against Wal-Mart. His film is unashamedly anti-Wal-Mart right from the word go. After the initial shareholders' meeting, the film introduces the Hunter family, from Middlefield, Ohio. Jon Hunter, the family patriarch, set up the H&H hardware store in 1962. Three generations of Hunters have worked there. The Hunters are far removed from people you might expect in a film such as this. You wouldn't find them at anti-globalization rallies, and they are more likely to enjoy an afternoon's shooting deer than perusing the latest Chomsky book.
Indeed, much of the film's subjects are like the Hunters, in that they fall into the "ordinary-decent-hard-working-American" type; a proud employee is shown setting the US flag up outside Hunter's store, before the camera pans to a shot of a Ronald Reagan calendar hanging on the store wall. This is all done to the soundtrack of folksy guitar music, but the music stops abruptly and emboldened letters appear across the screen: "WAL-MART DESCENDS ON MIDDLEFIELD!" The shot jumps to bulldozers on a construction site for the town's new Wal-Mart. Subtlety isn't one of this film's virtues.
Later, there's a notice hanging on the Hunter's store: "Inventory Closeout Sale. After 43 years, H&H Hardware is closing down." The connection Greenwald wants his audience to make that Wal-Mart put the Hunter family out of business is obvious.
It's also false. The film doesn't explain that H&H Hardware closed down three months before Middlefield's Wal-Mart opened, largely due to bad business decisions made by the store's owner. In an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Jon Hunter said that he told the film's producers not to connect H&H's closing to Wal-Mart's opening. A new hardware store opened on the premises in October 2005 and is reported to be doing well.
Wal-mart the musical
Is Greenwald guilty of bias, something that he blasted Fox News for in his previous film? In his defence, he argues that his "bigger picture" criticisms of Wal-Mart and there are many stand up to scrutiny. Wouldn't it have lent his film some credibility if Wal-Mart were given the opportunity of making its case? "I did approach Wal-Mart for their side of the story," says Greenwald, "Not because you need to do it, but because I thought it would make for a better film. They turned me down several times. And what's the first thing they attack me for when the film comes out? It's one sided."
CEO Lee Scott, who has appeared on a number of programmes responding to Greenwald's accusations, was himself repeatedly asked for an interview. Greenwald rejects the idea that he should have made this point in the film. "I don't accept the notion that you have to do that," he insists. "It wouldn't have lent the film any more credibility. Wal-Mart spends $3 million everyday propagandizing. When you go to cover a crime scene, you don't give all the points of view. Wal-Mart is committing crimes I don't feel any obligation to give them a platform on my little film."
He has a point one day's worth of PR for Wal-Mart is more than the total budget for the film, which cost $1.8 million to make, much of it financed by Greenwald himself. (And despite the film's success, because of its distribution channels, Greenwald hasn't personally made any money from it.) Neither did Greenwald feel any obligation to give Fox News a chance to respond to allegations in Outfoxed. His response was the same Wal-Mart has plenty of other avenues to defend itself.
As a result of the film and other campaigns including Wal-Mart Watch, Wal-Mart has launched a massive PR campaign defending itself against various allegations and trying to promote the company image. As part of this, Wal-Mart has assembled "a war room" team of PR specialists, who have extensive experience of running political campaigns.
"They've attacked me pretty viciously, almost all of it wrong," says Greenwald. "They've put thousands of dollars into trying to discredit me, but it comes with the job. You take these things on."
Through its awesome financial clout it's the biggest retailer in the world, and China's eighth largest trading partner Wal-Mart has also been able to hurt Greenwald financially. Just before the film's release in the US, a major funder pulled out, Greenwald says, because of Wal-Mart's influence, which meant that he had to borrow over $100,000 to keep the project going. More recently in Germany, a distribution deal with a company fell through because of pressure from Wal-Mart, according to Greenwald.
He remains undeterred, however. This is nothing, he says, compared to the risks that Wal-Mart employees took on by participating in his film. "The fear of backers and distributors is unconscionable when you put in next to the people at Wal-Mart who came forward and talked. They aren't of great means financially and if they are willing to put themselves on the line, then the least we can do is support them."
When South Park's Stan Marsh asks his father how come Wal-Mart is able to sell everything so cheaply, he replies, "It's simple economics, son. I don't understand it at all. But God I love it." But as Greenwald demonstrates, Wal-Mart's low prices have also a lot to do with its cost-cutting measures, which are often unethical, and sometimes illegal.
However, Greenwald's message isn't anti-capitalist a number of his subjects stress that they believe in capitalism rather it's a warning of what can happen when power is unchecked and when "American values" are compromised. "This film focuses on greed, which Americans don't support, and on breaking the rules, because Wal-Mart doesn't play by the rules."