Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

By Nancy Harrison and Pepe Baena

wal-mart-robert-greenwald-1.jpgWal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price, 2005

An exclusive interview with political documentary-maker Robert Greenwald

After laying bare TV journalism (Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism) and the Iraq War (Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War) filmmaker Robert Greenwald has now taken on the corporate monster that is slowly consuming the small towns and communities of America. This incendiary documentary lays open the ruthless, and sometimes frightening, business practices of the All-American retail giant Wal-Mart – owners of the Asda chain in the UK, and an oft-quoted corporate ideal. Eyebrow-raising facts, from the family-owned company’s employment practices, their Chinese sweatshops, environmental damage and truly breathtaking level of government subsidies, this is a real-life horror story, and a wake-up call to everyone who believes in ‘free enterprise’. Part of a recent renaissance in high-profile political documentary that includes The Corporation, Super Size Me, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the films of Michael Moore, the film thoroughly damns the worst of the corporate practices, at the same time as it charts the beginnings of the grass-roots backlash.

Nancy Harrison: Do you think the renewed popularity of documentary is a reflection of our need for facts versus the constant bombardment of advertising and spin?

Robert Greenwald: I think it is partly that, but I also think that it is the result of the way that the primary media is not doing its job, in that it is not keeping us in touch with what is going on in the world. We are seeing a rise in interest in non-fiction books as well as documentaries, as a source of factual information.

wal-mart-robert-greenwald-2.jpgWal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price, 2005

NH: There has been a huge rise of popular interest in political documentary, with the likes of Michael Moore and Super Size Me – and yet less and less people are voting. Is politics becoming just another form of entertainment?

RG: Well I think that people are participating, even if less people are voting. They are participating by marching, or registering their disapproval by protesting, and a lot has to be said for that. But also, it is a bit tragic, in that it is sometimes difficult to make a case between the different candidates, to find anything to recommend between them.

Pepe Baena: You are sometimes described as a ‘Hollywood Political Activist’. Why would we need a Political activist in the dream factory?

RG: Los Angeles – not Hollywood! I don’t identify myself with Hollywood, first of all I identify myself first as a New Yorker, and now as a native of the city of Los Angeles. So, I do work in the film world, but I would not say I work in Hollywood.

wal-mart-robert-greenwald-3.jpgWal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price, 2005

PB: Your film tells the stories of "families and communities struggling to fight a Goliath". Is a fight against Wal-Mart a fight against USA corporatism?

RG: Yes, definitely. Well not just USA – multinational companies across the world.

NH: In Wal-Mart, the locations you profiled are primarily in small communities – did you consciously do this to highlight the contrast to the huge corporation, or is that because those communities are feeling the biggest impact of the superstores?

RG: I think it is the latter. They are the ones that are really being devastated. And that is what makes up a big part of the story. But I didn’t totally avoid the larger cities – I did cover it at the end. Inglewood [in Los Angeles], for example is very much a part of the larger city, but for the most part, yes it was designed to show the rapacious effect on these smaller communities.

PB: Is it possible to say a company like Wal-Mart, who employs more than 1.6 million people (more than the population of some small countries) is a sort of economic dictatorship inside a western democracy?

RG: I think that all of the multinationals are guilty of economic abuses, in the ways that they do their business. It is the way the large multinational corporations operate. But it is not actually a dictatorship.

PB: You have said that this was your most demanding film for funding. Why was it that the success of your previous films did not help make finding funding easier?

RG: The success of the previous films was a type of limited success, more of a political success and not just an economic success. The successes of the others were primarily political, drawing attention to issues. And of course, this was a controversial film.

PB: You distribute your films using alternative methods to the industry standard. How did this work?

RG: With Outfoxed I started distributing my film through Internet DVD sales first, and because of the demand, there was then a theatrical release post-DVD. I’m not aware of the Internet being used in that way before. It is a relatively new phenomenon as a way of distributing films.

PB: Do you think that anti-piracy controls, and the rigid structure in releasing Hollywood films are part of a paranoia discourse, or yet another way to maximise profit and avoid loses of revenue?

RG: I think it is mainly about maximising profit. I think that is what it drives it. As to paranoia, there is an element of that to it, but it comes from the desire to maximise profit.

PB: You were the executive producer of the “UN-” trilogy (Unconstitutional: The War on our Civil Liberties; Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election; Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War). If there was to be a fourth film, which one of the following titles would it be: Un-Bushed?; Un-Do-It-Yourself: A Guide for People Recovering Power or Un-Action Now!?

RG: Oh, I think it would have to be Un-Do-It-Yourself: A Guide for People Recovering Power.