Despite a four-decade film career, a Peabody Award for the TV movie Sharing the Secret, and 25 Emmys, you might not know about director Robert Greenwald.
Greenwald's documentaries—among them, 2003's Uncovered: The War on Iraq and 2004's Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism—have been released through Brave New Films, his own independent distribution company. And that's meant more limited audiences than for such documentaries as Fahrenheit 9/11, because major theater chains rarely carry independently released efforts.
His latest film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, opens in Portland Friday, Jan. 6, and is already available on DVD (part of the distribution scheme relies on group screenings). While the film is uneven, its undeniable power comes from interviews with past and current employeees, a firsthand examination of the human costs of the retail mega-chain's policies for the 1.6 million workers in its 5,200 stores worldwide. Wal-Mart has countered the heat by hiring former image and media consultants for Presidents Reagan and Clinton to spearhead its recently created war room.
What sparked you to make the movie about Wal-Mart?
When I found out how much the Walton family was worth. The fact that they could have $100 billion and then be screwing employees out of health care and devastating family businesses—it got my juices flowing with the sense that it's morally wrong.
The movie doesn't discuss who's really behind Wal-Mart's success—its customers. Did you fear the topic would alienate the potential audience?
No, I wanted to tell the story of the systemic policies of the corporation and how that affects others. I think there's a very interesting movie to be made about consumerism, buying your way out of pain or into status, but that wasn't the movie I did. From this point of view, looking at the policy and how it affects each of us, the consumerism was not a part of the story.
How was it be called a Nazi propagandist by the New York Post?
It felt great! First, the New York Post called me a Nazi—and I do happen to be Jewish, so there's a minor problem there. But then, Fox News also attacked me very strongly, so I knew that we were being effective. Probably the best measure of how effective you are is the level of the attacks you get thrown at you.
Can you say those attacks were the result of Wal-Mart and not the possibility that those news organizations, which are both owned by Rupert Murdoch, put you on their shit list after Outfoxed?
Oh, well, who knows? I guess I have worked hard to get there.
How does your Wal-Mart film differ from propaganda?
We spent one year researching, we had thousands and thousands of hours of interviews with experts. If you just wanted to do propaganda, you probably could have done that in two, three days and dashed something out.
What would you say to families who can't really afford to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart?
I would say shop there. The goal is to change Wal-Mart so people don't have to be ashamed to shop there, not to punish people of limited means.
Do you own a car?
Do you know if the mechanics who work on it are unionized?
Are you genuinely concerned with employment practices and treatment of workers?
I'm concerned about everything, but I'm not perfect.
Don't you feel that as a public figure, you have a greater responsibility to practice what you preach?
I still think of myself as a struggling filmmaker—I haven't internalized the idea of myself as a public figure. I think we all find what we can do effectively, and to the degree that I can be effective at telling stories that reach lots of people, I need to drive a car to get there. If I stopped and checked how the car got made, or where it was purchased, or who made it, well—I would like to think that I'm that noble, but then I might not be able to tell the movie. It's a trade-off, but I've decided to put my energy here. Wal-Mart has four metro-area stores, and some locals are fighting the chain's attempts to open four more.
plays at Cinema 21 at 5 pm Friday-Thursday, Jan. 6-12, with matinees at 3 pm Saturday and Sunday. $4-$7. The DVD can be ordered from www.walmartmovie.com.