Revisiting Robert Greenwald & Walmart: "I am very comfortable with David versus Goliath battles."

Robert Greenwald discusses Wal-Mart, consumerism and what you can do to make a difference.
London, 2006

Do you regard the Wal-Mart: High Cost of Low Price as an extension of the work you did in Uncovered and Outfoxed, in the sense that they are all deconstructions of spin, image-making and doublespeak?

“I think it’s certainly that. Also, what I do is I pursue these things instinctively and sometimes later realise the intellectual framework, and I also think, certainly between Outfoxed and this, there is a very strong line about the negative effects of large multinational corporations: Fox News being the poster child in the media world, and Wal-Mart being the poster child for bad behaviour, but they both have a connection to the issue for all of us, all over the world, about how much power we’re going to allow these large corporations to have.”

Are Fox News and Wal-Mart leading what’s been called the ‘race to the bottom’?

“Very much so. And they both have enormous power and money and therefore finding a way to tell a story that can reach people and go against their power and influence is a challenge. But I also am very comfortable with David versus Goliath battles.”

At the start of the new film we see Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott saying that what is important is to tell people the Wal-Mart story, and then what you do is deconstruct that story, in a sense, point by point.

“Yes, we’re definitely . . . I tried to get an interview with Lee Scott. He wouldn’t agree, and then I ultimately thought we’ll put him in the movie anyway and he’ll become our announcer.”

What was their response to your request for an interview because they’ve actually co-operated on a far rosier version of the Wal-Mart story by the director Ron Galloway?

“Basically they said, ‘No’. I kept saying, ’We’ll post everything he says on our website and what a great opportunity for you to reach your critics who you’re always trying to reach.’ But, ultimately they hired some really very, very expensive spin doctors, who treated it as a political campaign rather than as a retailer whose job it is to sell products. So they treated me like an opposition candidate who they didn’t want to engage with, which was really odd, but that’s their choice.”

There is a campaign attached to the film. Was the film conceived as part of a campaign or was the campaign built around it?

“Well they come together. What I’m learning with each of these films is that because they’re about social change then you need to be married to the groups working social change. It’s the reason I don’t put my primary focus into the movie theatres. As much as I love seeing movies at movie theatres and buying popcorn and stuff, if the goal is social change then you need a sort of varied strategy. So we do movie theatres and we do the internet and we do the media campaign, and we do the social groups, and we put all of this together rather than in the more conventional approach, which would have only been movie theatres.”

And does the different viewing experience of seeing it in a context other than a multiplex inspire a better level of debate, and engagement with the issues?

“Well, I certainly think that when films are by design married to the groups working for change, you get a much more substantive focus on what you’re saying. I mean the first time I went to one of my films and saw it at a house party – we have these house parties where people come together and have discussions, and the same thing in the theatre, actually, where we have discussion afterwards – I was astounded at the different experience, because it wasn’t just a matter of going with your date and walking out quickly afterwards to get a drink, or falling asleep with the remote clicker in your hands; people engaged afterwards about what they wanted to do and how they could do things as a function of having experienced the movie. In terms of satisfaction about doing one’s work and people paying attention to it, it was off the charts.”

In this film and Outfoxed there is an effort made to galvanise people to act. After the elections in 2000 and 2004, and the voting scandals in Florida and Ohio, do some people feel like they don’t have a voice and they can’t change things?

“Well, I think it’s even bigger than that. The people that are voting, the percentage, I don’t know in your country but in the United States it keeps dropping. It’s horrible the way people aren’t even engaging in the political process. So I think that it’s important to let people know that democracy is not a spectator sport, that there are many different ways that we can get involved, and should get involved, and really can make a difference getting involved. So my focus is not even so much on the candidates, because I believe the candidates are a function of the issues. If you look at the United States the big social change has always been driven by social movements, not by individual candidates. Whether it was the labour movement or the women’s movement or the civil rights movement, the movements have spawned the candidates, who then took another step if you will. My belief on these films and the social movement work that I do is to encourage people to get involved on the issues they care about, and from that will come the candidate.”

Do you see Wal-Mart as a symptom of something bigger, as an example of a particular culture writ large, or as the disease itself?

“Yes, they are definitely a symptom of – it’s hard to say larger problem because Wal-Mart is so large [laughs] – but there is no question that citizens of the world must deal with large multi-national corporations which now have more effect on many people’s lives than their own governments do. You know the numbers are just staggering now. I’m going to paraphrase this slightly but like the 30 largest economies in the world, 15 of them are private corporations and only 15 of them are nation states. In the United States, corporations, by legal design, are required only to function on maximising profitability. It’s actually against the law for them to have a larger social vision. So over the long tem, and people of all political persuasions are up in arms about this, over the long term there’s no question we have to do deal with that and deal with the fact that corporations, which are legal entities, have been given the rights of people, which is obscene and absurd.”

Were there things that you didn’t know when you started this project and which particularly shocked you?

“Well I knew very little about Wal-Mart, I was incredibly ignorant, so it was a huge learning experience for me. It’s embarrassing that I didn’t know much but it’s also what made making this film so amazing for me, because I’m coming in, in a sense, with the audience’s eyes. So the amount of influence they have over so many people, in so many different ways, made an accumatively huge impact on me and all my colleagues working on the film, and it really gave us this incredible sense of responsibility in terms of trying to do it and trying to do it well, and trying to reach as many people as we could. Because whether you’re a home owner or a worker who’s being exploited, or someone where the environment’s being affected, or working in a sweatshop overseas, or a family business that’s been driven out, Wal-Mart is an equal-opportunity abuser and its spread is quite amazing.”

Obviously you felt it important to show what the people in China are experiencing in the sweatshops. But did you specifically want to open people’s eyes in America? At the beginning of the film someone complains about all the cheap Chinese imports that are coming into the US through Wal-Mart. However, what you show is that the Chinese labourers who produce them are as much victims of Wal-Mart as the Americans who are put out of business.

“Exactly right. In the United States, unfortunately, there’s been a pretty strong anti-China environment, including other workers who have seen the Chinese workers as the enemy. And without being preachy, I felt very strongly that I wanted to make the point that workers, like workers here, are being exploited, and our job is to deal with the multi-national corporation that is leading the race to the bottom, not try and punish the Chinese worker who is trying to do what we’re doing, which is try and make a living and provide for our family.”

Do you think people are in denial about how the low prices they’re paying are achieved?

“Yeah, I think people definitely are in denial and don’t focus on it. You know, we have that little moment in the movie when the lady says she is shocked about the illegal undocumented workers being locked in, and Jon Stewart says, ‘Lady, you just bought a refrigerator for $5!’ There is definitely denial, or productive ignorance in this case.”

Have we effectively been turned into a society of consumers who instinctively go after low prices without really thinking about the reason why those prices are so low and do we somehow have to be broken out of that mindset?

“Yes, we’ve become consumers over citizens and we have to take the citizenship back for all of us.”

Is the problem with something like Wal-Mart that people only really get excited when it’s in their own back yard, not really realising that wherever stores are built they are affected because of the impact on the economy and the influence Wal-Mart has on bringing standards down across the board?

“Absolutely, and that’s a key reason for making the movie. Exactly that.”

For me, one of the most shocking things in the film is not simply the rapacity of Wal-Mart and the way that it targets businesses like an assassin, but that it is aided and abetted by councils through subsidies, in effect failing the small businessman.

“Yes, I think that’s exactly it. And the fact that it’s so amazingly widespread, too. It’s all over the country, all over the world: so many different home owners, so many different workers, so many different family businesses.”

Someone in the film says that once small town quality of life has gone, there’s no getting it back. Do you believe that to be true?

“Well I think you can’t ever turn back the clock. But because I think it is a human instinct to desire community, I think the species will continue to find other ways to do it. Ultimately, for most large things, there is a time when they fall, and I believe the same will be of Wal-Mart. And I think we will find, it’s a larger issue, but I think we will find ways that don’t go backwards but where people do figure out how they can congregate and connect. Again, maybe it’s my space on the internet, just bought by Rupert Murdoch, by the way [laughs at the irony of the owner of Fox owning his web space], or other ways that we haven’t dreamed about as we’re having this conversation, but somebody else is finding that people can come together. But I don’t think you turn back the clock. I don’t think that’s possible.”

You have said that this film was the most demanding project you have ever worked on. Why?

“Well it was the combination of both the size and scope of it, the political demands of taking on something so large, and the creative demands of trying to find a story in an essentially formless situation.”

How did the subject matter inform the approach?

“Well I decided to go small. I felt that the way to deal with something of this enormity was not to use facts and figures or even talking heads, but to go as deeply into the human psyche as possible.”

How did you find the various people you interview? Did you match them with the issues that you wanted to address or did the issues arise out of the interviews?

“Um, it was a combination. There was some we had before and some we found as we were talking to people that they just raised on their own, and we said, ‘Boy, we got to go down this road.’”

How difficult was it to get people to talk on camera given how powerful Wal-Mart is and the way people’s fear becomes a means of control?

“Um, it just is really, really hard, and lots of labour and lots of phone calls, lots of travel, and ultimately we found these amazing folks that were willing to come forward.”

Were people that were no longer employed by Wal-Mart afraid of speaking out?

“Yes, they were.”

What did they fear happening?

“Because they feared they would hurt them get other jobs, they feared they would spread the word about them, they would be blacklisted in the retail industry, they would cause grief among their friends that still worked at Wal-Mart.”

What about people to whom you went for money? Was there any concern raised about what could happen to people who put money into the project?

“Oh yeah, it was horrible. One of the big financiers pulled out at the last minute and I had to borrow several hundred-thousand dollars, which, fortunately, it looks like we’ll be able to pay back.”

Watching the film, I couldn’t help feeling that Wal-Mart increasingly became like a metaphor for the current administration in terms of the way that it uses fear and articulates values it doesn’t put into practice. Was this intentional or is it just one impression one could have?

“Well, you know, with this film, since there are probably more Republicans in the movie than Democrats, I have made a conscious effort to present the material and let people make their own decisions about that.”

Another feeling that comes through it is that Wal-Mart is in some ways an un-American entity and I wonder whether you can comment on that.

“Yes, I do think the company, in the basic way, is leading an attack on some of the best of American values, which are hard work, independence, kind of go-get-‘em attitude, and they’re pulverising that. I think that’s awful.”

They also wrap themselves in the flag and articulate Christian values which they don’t appear to put into practice.

“Yes, and that, I think, is the ultimate hypocrisy.”

Have any of the current Wal-Mart employees that were interviewed in the film suffered because of their participation in the film? I’m thinking of Josh, for instance, the young chap who tried to unionise the tyre express centre at one Wal-Mart.

“Um, well, um, they did attack them. They did like a 30 or 40-page attack on the film, line by line, and they attacked a bunch of these employees and former employees. But fortunately nobody’s been hit by a car.”

Has anyone lost their job that you know of through appearing in this?

“I don’t know of anybody.”

You’re one of the leading people using the internet and new technology as a tool for activism. How has the new technology changed activism, would you say, or at least the possibilities?

“Well I think it’s giving an amazing tool to our side, to progressives, who want to talk about things of substance, and the primary media becoming a 30-second sound-bite media. So I see it as a big plus, if it’s used properly. It’s a tool. It’s a tool to get people together and it’s a tool to explore deeper issues, and I’m excited to be a part of that, really, in a major way.”

Can a film be effective without the sort of campaign with which you’re backing your documentary?

“Um, well I think it can make an impact in the thinking of maybe people and possibly opinion makers. The next step is to take that change in opinion and galvanise it so that it turns into a movement for social change. So I’ve made a decision to do my work more closely connected to that social movement. But I think everyone does what they are comfortable with and what they know how to do. I think all of it’s positive.”

You can learn more about Robert Greenwald at

Read Wal-Mart's version of the story at

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is available to buy on DVD.

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

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