BERLIN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVALThe Beef with Wal-MartRobert Greenwald's documentary "Wal-Mart, the High Cost of Low Price," premieres in Germany at the Berlin International Film Festival. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he describes the challenge of taking on one of the world's largest multinational corporations, and why it's scared of him.
Wal-Mart: Low prices for customers, low pay for workers.Robert Greenwald's film "Wal-Mart, the High Cost of Low Price" has been a controversial attention getter in the US due to its critical, almost rabid, attack on the business and personnel practices of the retail behemoth. In the documentary, current and former Wal-Mart employees excoriate the company for gender and racial discrimination, under-paying, and health benefits so pathetic that employees are encouraged to go on public assistance. The film also shows small town America being destroyed by the big box stores -- which drive smaller, family-run establishments out of business -- and ends with communities rallying together to keep Sam Walton's global superstore from elbowing into their towns. In previous documentaries, Greenwald has taken on ultra-conservative Fox News network, Enron and the Iraq War. On Saturday, he premiered the newly cut international version of the film at the Berlin International Film Festival. He spoke with SPIEGEL ONLINE about his film and what he describes as a global Wal-Mart threat that will make life worse for workers in the countries where the megastore sells its wares and for those in China and elsewhere where people produce the goods it markets.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What image of America will people get from this film?Greenwald: Wal-Mart pretends to represent something about America that I think is false. They are only interested in picking your pockets for an extra nickel. I hope the film creates a counter narrative saying that that all kinds of good Americans -- red state, blue state, black, brown, white, rich, poor -- are being hurt by Wal-Mart.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was your personal experience in dealing with Wal-Mart while making the film?Greenwald: We did the film without them knowing about it for as long as possible because we knew this culture of fear that they intentionally encourage around the world. We knew it would be harder to get people to talk if they knew about the film, so we worked in secret for six months. Then we went public and asked Wal-Mart to participate. They refused. The first thing they did was criticize me for being one-sided after they refused to participate in the film! Look, the hypocrisy is really quite extraordinary.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You talked to current and former Wal-Mart employees. Were the workers afraid to talk?Greenwald: There was tremendous fear, a lot of people hung up the phone on us. Others closed the door when we arrived -- even after they had agreed to be filmed. Again, it's this international pattern where Wal-Mart uses its size and money in an effort to scare people. Some of the managers interviewed in the film were later defamed by Wal-Mart, which accused them of all sorts of things that were lies.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your American film distributor mentioned here in Berlin that there have been problems getting the film picked up for distribution in certain countries. Greenwald: As we see in the film, Wal-Mart engenders fear. People who work there are afraid to lose their jobs if they, in any way, try to improve their working environment or join a union. Wal-Mart is doing everything it can to encourage this attitude of "Hey, you better watch out. Don't mess with us."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the US, the film was shown in small groups, at churches, community centers as part of a social movement. Do you expect the same thing to happen here in Europe?Greenwald: In the United States, with "Wal-Mart", we created an alternative distribution plan. We used the Internet to reach hundreds of thousands of people and people set up screenings in their homes, churches and schools. It's a phenomenal and exciting way of reaching people. I'm thrilled that I don't have to rely on any gatekeepers. But in Europe, we'll screen this in traditional theaters. Still, I hope the film and the social movement connected with it can help alert people before it's too late. But I have to stress it's not just the film, but the film tied to the social organizing, the protesting of the building of new Wal-Marts, and the way the chain does business. Their business practices are international, and therefore there have to be international solutions to stopping them.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your film has been much talked about in the US, yet you re-cut it for international distribution. What did you want to change? Greenwald: I have hundreds of hours of footage. The international version gave me a much desired opportunity to focus on the international import and the way that Wal-Mart affects many countries, and so I was able to have a more extended section on Germany, on the United Kingdom, on Canada. The section on factory workers in China who produce many of the goods sold in Wal-Marts was a little fuller.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Wal-Mart has not had much success in Germany, a country where unions still have a stronger presence than in the United States. Greenwald: The good news side of it here is that because they took over existing companies, they were forced to deal with the unions. I included that information in the US version because I wanted people in America to know that despite Wal-Mart's battle to keep unions out of its stores in the US, it is forced to work with them in other countries where it does business. If it can work with the unions in Europe, why can't it do the same in America?
SPIEGEL ONLINE: A Wal-Mart employee in Germany gets more than a month of vacation a year. Greenwald: The Wal-Mart model is comprised of many things -- but at its core is the idea of exploiting the workers, exploiting customers, doing anything to make a nickel. Fortunately because they do have protections in Germany, they're not allowed to do it. So we'll see over time whether they're allowed to penetrate and have as much control in Germany and Europe as they do in other places, where they have enormous and disproportionate control over food, the environment and all kinds of things.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: On the Wal-Mart Web site, there's a video that dissects the trailer for your film, it's called "3 lies in 3 minutes" and goes pieces by piece, saying all your facts are wrong. Greenwald: We have facts, and I have invited Wal-Mart many, many times to debate me on this issue. They refused. What are they afraid of? I'm happy to show them our information. I'm happy to show them not only the people in the film, but the tons of others. But they won't -- they've hired political hacks to advise them and they are running this like a political campaign which includes a personal smear campaign against me. They released a 13-page document attacking me personally that included bad reviews of TV movies I did years ago. Why is that relevant?
Interview conducted by Susan Stone