This interview with Robert Greenwald, director of the new documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, is part of an unprecedented collaboration by The Nation, The American Prospect, In These Times and AlterNet to focus attention on issues raised by the film. On AlterNet, Joshua Holland explores the hidden costs of Wal-Mart’s cheap merchandise from China in “Wal-Mart’s China Price,” and Greg LeRoy looks at sweetheart taxpayer subsidies in “Wal-Mart’s Tax on Us.”
In The American Prospect, Harold Meyerson’s “Open Doors, Closed Minds” explores how one Wal-Mart true believer was excommunicated for his faith in doing what he thought the company expected of him: crying foul. Christoper Hayes of In These Times explores Wal-Mart as a “Symbol of the System.”
You’ve chosen an unorthodox distribution strategy for Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price–forgoing theatrical release and instead screening the film at house parties and community centers. What about this formula works for this kind of film?
I like going to the movies. I like having popcorn. But if your goal is to create social change, it’s not even a question that this is the way to go. Let’s think about it for a minute. You go to the movies, you have to spend $10. What are the chances you’re going to get someone to go to a movie on a subject they don’t care about, or they disagree with you on? Very, very slim. However, if it’s on at your church, or your neighbor invites you over for a drink and shows the DVD, or if it’s at your student union hall or your bowling alley, it’s an entirely different thing. Everyone has a friend who disagrees with them politically, everyone has relatives they fight with all the time, people they argue with at work…these are the kinds of people we are reaching with this kind of campaign. With Outfoxed, we reached an enormous amount of people–never in my wildest dreams did I imagine how many people we would end up reaching this way.
In your other films, Outfoxed and Uncovered, you focus largely on expert opinion. Why did you decide to make ordinary Americans the focus of this film?
I felt the way to tell the Wal-Mart story was to go very small, intimate and personal. It was a key creative and political decision; if the movie was going to be effective, it had to be done this way. Many of the people in this film are self-identified conservatives. The issue of corporate greed far exceeds any issue of Democrats and Republicans.
Wal-Mart says it has been unfairly scapegoated and that many of America’s large corporations employ similar tactics. Why focus on Wal-Mart?
They’re the largest corporation in the world, and they have a huge impact. Their policy has been leading the drive to the bottom–not following, leading. Because of their size and power, they’re having an enormous effect. The way they drive costs down by externalizing benefits to their employees (i.e., they don’t pay for benefits; taxpayers wind up paying it) gives them an unfair advantage in competing with other businesses. The amount that they have decimated communities around the United States–family businesses, homeowners–the width and breadth of that has been staggering to me.
But there is tremendous resistance spreading and also tremendous success. One of the exciting things for people working on this film is to be able to go out and use it as an organizing tool. What the movie does–and we’re seeing it this week, in blazing, living color–is bring attention to the issue. It says to people: Take the film, put it under your arm and go out and change the world. Wherever there’s a TV screen, there’s an opportunity for change. Once people have seen the film and are emotionally and intellectually affected, they can go to our website. There are a huge number of possible actions that they can take, and we provide links to the groups that are working on this issue, such as Wake Up Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Watch, ACORN, Jobs with Justice and Good Jobs First .
Your critics are dismissing the film as propaganda. What do you see as the difference between documentary and propaganda?
I spent a year of my life, seven days a week, with a large group of incredibly dedicated folks, making sure that everything in the film was accurate, and that’s not propaganda. It’s stuff I did not make up, and it’s stuff that Wal-Mart should make an effort to change.
In addition to spending millions of dollars to attack, defame and call me names–the messenger, rather than the message–they made a “hit” video with a picture of me on it, which talks about all of the mistakes in the film (which they’re dead-wrong on). In fact, Wal-Mart should get their money back from Edelmen [the company’s public relations firm], because it’s so badly done. So we took their video and revoiced it with our announcer, and we put it online. I think The Nation audience will get a kick out of that, because they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on theirs, and we just got somebody with a microphone. In twenty-four hours, we took it and made it ours.
Wal-Mart has made a practice of refusing to carry books and films it finds objectionable, from Jon Stewart’s America to Liza Featherstone’s Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart. It’s probably a safe bet they aren’t going to be selling your film.
First we’re trying to get them to see it–to stop attacking it and actually see it. Then we’ll see if we can get them to carry it.