Though Wal-Mart might be the cheapest place in town to buy toothpaste and socks, critics — environmentalists, labor unions, advocates of small-town America — have long said there is a social price to be paid for the mega-retailer’s discounts. Now, a new documentary that purports to expose the human impact of the company’s practices has Wal-Mart on the offensive, with the filmmaker and his movie the subject of an all-out PR blitz.
If you’re with a major corporation, Robert Greenwald might be the last person you want to come knocking. A kind of thinner, more soft-spoken Michael Moore, Greenwald is one of a crop of documentary filmmakers who are using the form to effect social and political change. In 2004, Greenwald took on no less than media giant Rupert Murdoch, whose right-leaning media empire has changed the face of news, most notably through the Fox News Network. “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” drew on interviews and the network’s own internal memos and documents to all but dismantle their claim to be “Fair and Balanced.”
Greenwald’s new film, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices,” set to be released Nov. 13, hopes to do the same to the retail giant. Using guerilla-distribution tactics similar to those he employed with his last film, Greenwald said that his documentary is scheduled to be screened in 7,000 homes, churches and restaurants across the country. There will be a dozen screenings at various Little Rock venues Nov. 14-16.
Just as Greenwald’s film is being released, an indie film that takes a contrarian view goes on sale. “Why Wal-Mart Works and Why That Makes Some People Crazy,” made by Ron and Rob Galloway, will be available at www.whywalmartworks.com on Nov. 15. The brothers say they made their pro-Wal-Mart documentary for $85,000 and no help from the Wal-Mart Corp. On their blog, www.whywalmartworks.blogspot.com, Ron Galloway says no one from the company has seen the film, either.
Greenwald’s forthcoming documentary has had Wal-Mart’s PR machine at full tilt for months. Wal-Mart — through its website walmartfacts.com — began sniping at Greenwald’s motives long before his film was ever finished. When Greenwald released a three-minute trailer for the movie, Wal-Mart released a counter-trailer on the Internet, listing three facts from the trailer the company saw as inconsistencies or outright falsehoods.
Since preliminary screenings last week in New York — which turned ugly when Greenwald ejected Wal-Mart employees who he said were using a camera phone to tape the screen — Wal-Mart has redoubled its efforts, calling the film “propaganda” and painting Greenwald himself as beholden to left-wing special interests.
“After spending $2 million of his own money and the money of his still-undisclosed donors,” said a statement on the walmartfacts.com website, “it appears Mr. Greenwald is left with an error-ridden propaganda video that just doesn’t appeal beyond the special interests he represents.”
For Greenwald, the path to angering the Goliath of American retail started quite innocently — through a simple conversation with his neighbor, who had just gotten a job at Wal-Mart.
Though the health insurance premiums were too high to pay with his salary, the neighbor told Greenwald, managers at the store had shown him how to fill out paperwork for state and federal benefits.
“I said wait a minute,” Greenwald said. “A huge corporation is not paying their workers enough that they can get health care — they’re making me the taxpayer pay for it — and the family behind it has got a hundred billion dollars? This is not America the way I know it.”
Greenwald’s back-fence chat has since turned into a years-long odyssey. Instead of numbers and figures, Greenwald said, he chose to spotlight personal accounts of how the corporation’s practices have affected people’s lives. Among them, Greenwald said, are the stories of ex-managers, employees, and a Chinese worker who makes goods for sale on America shelves.
Greenwald said this idea of showing the real-world impact of Wal-Mart has the company obviously worried.
“They smell that what I’m doing is using human stories,” Greenwald said. “I’m not using studies, I’m not using experts, I’m showing people who are suffering like hell, and they’re good people. They’ve had their homes destroyed, their businesses destroyed.”
Greenwald said that he doesn’t want to bring down Wal-Mart, just get them to fix what is wrong about their company. One of the first steps, he said, might be to fire what he called the “flacks and hacks” that run the PR department. Greenwald said the company spends $3.8 million per day on “propaganda about how great a corporation it is.” Greenwald said that by spending the same amount per day on its employee health system, Wal-Mart could generate all the good publicity it ever dreamed of. Greenwald said he has offered to screen his film for Wal-Mart executives, but has been rebuffed.