To say that Wal-Mart is in the hot seat again is like saying that the Bush administration, though it's working hard, has a few problems.
Add to Wal-Mart's current load of litigations a secret memo leaked to the New York Times revealing internal weakness and a plan to cut worker benefits and hire more part-time employees. Add thousands of California Wal-Mart workers suing for their missed, legally entitled lunch breaks. Wal-Mart is battling the biggest gender bias lawsuit in retail history. Yep, it's hard work keeping the shine on the veneer. And with the release of Robert Greenwald's new documentary, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," it's about to get much harder.
"Wal-Mart" is a grassroots effort, filmed by dozens of crews on three continents, but it tells intensely personal stories. Stories the Wal-Mart spin makers have overlooked. Have you heard the one about the employee who must depend on Welfare and Medicaid even though she's worked for Wal-Mart for many years? These heartbreaking narratives reveal how Wal-Mart strangles the life out of American towns and American values.
"There's a real hunger out there for stuff of substance about the critical issues of the day," says Greenwald, whose indie smash hits include "Outfoxed and Uncovered: The Iraq War." Personally transformed by the events of 9/11, Greenwald feels it is his obligation as a filmmaker to make public the untold stories of real people behind the machinery of war and corporatocracy.
As revealed by the leaked memo, Wal-Mart (the corporation) publicly impersonates a company that genuinely cares for its employees, all the while seeking ways to increase profits by cutting worker benefits. Wal-Mart (the movie) peels off the veneer and exposes its dysfunctional innards, a subculture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation.
One man, retired after 17 years in Wal-Mart management, confesses how they took pride in obliterating local stores. Pointing to neighboring businesses near newly opened Wal-Mart centers, they'd wager the amount of time - six months, three months - they gave those mom-and-pop enterprises before they'd fold.
Using ingenious grassroots distribution methods, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" will reach the very people affected most by the moral and ethical issues it examines. Making certain the story gets down to the grassroots is a collaborative effort between activists, guerilla filmmaker Greenwald, and his company Brave New Films.
Can a documentary film catalyze community dialogue over critical issues? HopeDance Films' Bob Banner, local "field producer" of "Wal-Mart" can't say for certain, but notes that after a showing of "The End of Suburbia," citizens in Santa Barbara created the think tank For The Future ( www.forthefuture.org), which has helped galvanize their community's awareness of peak oil. Banner adds that SB city officials, alerted by For The Future, are now showing interest in "creating a sustainable model that can perhaps be duplicated in other cities."
Can a documentary film help shift prevailing cultural standards? "Supersize Me," 2004's independent box office hit, exposed the fat in fast food and heavily suggested that healthier alternatives are in our best interest. As reported in the film, out of control teens at a high school in Omaha, Neb., steadily morph into focused, productive students, bolstered by their wholesome and home-cooked school lunch program.
Can a documentary movie reinvigorate a deflated public forum? Brave New Films does so by inviting creative participation in both the making and the distribution of their documentaries, via the Internet.
"You are my Universals, you are my Warner Brothers," Greenwald recently told a cheering audience in San Francisco. Even the name of this film was the winner of an online competition.
We should expect fairness of a documentary. We want both sides of a story, after all, so we can make up our own minds when the lights come back on. Greenwald sought to include Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott in the film, but Scott refused to talk, as staunchly as he refuses to pay Wal-Mart associates a living wage.
Greenwald's indie films succeed not only because of their timeliness and critical social stance, but also because they rally real people instead of movie executives to participate, create the buzz, and distribute the films.
Turning the old-paradigm distribution model on its head is a trend other independent filmmakers are embracing, including Hollywood's A-list director Steven Soderbergh, whose new films will air in theaters at the same time they become available on DVD. Soderbergh recently called the traditional studio distribution model "out of whack" with current technology and culture.
Wal-Mart spin doctors claim that an expensive PR campaign has been launched against them. In reality, Greenwald has simply turned to the Internet to alert the grassroots, including many churches and universities personally familiar with the corporation's savage practices. Making it easy for as many people to see the films as cheaply as possible, DVDs are available inexpensively from Brave New Films' web site. Bob Banner applauds Brave New Films' alternative distribution strategy. In response to an e-mail from them six months ago, Banner became one of about 70 such field producers across the U.S., Mexico, and Australia who he hopes "have taken it upon themselves to help promote the film."
"What's really cool has been organizing the various venues in Montecito, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and SLO," says Banner. The premiere screening for Santa Maria on Nov. 13 is especially critical, just two days before Wal-Mart officials pressure the Santa Maria City Council for a zoning change in order to allow for a 200,000-square-foot Supercenter, big even for Wal-Mart's bloated standards.
"Wal-Mart" shows us the people struggling against the goliath at the center of a noisy media blitz. People quietly deconstructing the myth of the American good bargain. Banner, who organized seven screenings of the anti-Wal-Mart film in four different cities, believes that socially relevant films are capable of shaking us awake. People's stories, not ad campaigns, can pry open our hearts and change our minds.
Santa Maria :
Sunday, Nov. 13; 2:30 p.m.: 511 E. Lakeside Parkway.
(suggested donation $5)
Santa Barbara area:
Sunday, Nov. 13; 7 p.m.: La Casa de Maria in Montecito.
(suggested donation $10)
Monday, Nov. 14; 7 p.m.: Faulkner Gallery in the Santa Barbara Library,
40 E. Anapamu.
San Luis Obispo area:
Friday, Nov. 18, 7 p.m. at the SLO Library (Osos & Palm).
(suggested donation $5)
Saturday, Nov. 19; 12 p.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. at the SLO Library (Osos & Palm).
(suggested donation $5);
No one will be turned away for lack of funds.
Visit www.walmartmovie.com to locate the times and places of screenings in other areas.
Suzanne Arthur is a freelance writer and San Luis Obispo resident. She can be reached through Managing Editor King Harris at email@example.com.