Saturday, August 12, 2006

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005)

Wal-Mart - the High Cost of Low PriceThe last couple of years have been very good for documentaries that highlight the evil machinations of big corporations. Super Size Me did a great job of entertaining the viewer, whilst also conveying an important political message about the way McDonalds achieves its big profits at the expense of our health. The Corporation emphasised the politics around the whole issue more, but also proved to be gripping viewing, with enough new shocking facts and figures to interest the most jaded pallette. Then of course there's the extremely skewed, but no less entertaining, work of Michael Moore whose films are highly entertaining if you can get past the fact that a dirty looking, overweight, unkempt presenter is lecturing you on how you should behave.

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is more of the same sort of thing, but very much weaker than any of the afore-mentioned work. Most of us know, through media reports on our own national monopoly, Tesco, of the bad practices of the supermarket chains, and Wal-Mart, who run the Asda stores here in the UK, don't have as bad a reputation here as they do abroad, primarily because they're in a much weaker position.

The spark that lit the flame for this documentary's director Robert Greenwald was the discovery that Wal-Mart screws its own 'associates' (employees) by not giving them medical care. It's a fair story, but not one sufficient enough to sustain a whole film. A series of 'look how bad they are' stories get tacked on to try and exaggerate how evil the people behind the company are, but it's all very thin, and too often one can't help feeling the mountain that keeps being pointed out is really just a very small molehill. Is anyone really surprised that the billionaires who own Wal-Mart don't give enough money to charity, that one store had potentially dangerous goods stacked near a riverbank, or that people have been victims of crime in their car parks? The teary interviews from relatives and friends of a murder victim that was kidnapped from a Wal-Mart car park come across as needless wallowing in other people's misery - they're intrusive and not particularly relevant to the central story, and one can almost hear the interviewer prompting from behind the camera 'Can you turn it on a bit more, luv? Think about what actually happened to your friend, and how it STARTED AT WAL-MART, so we can get a bit more emotional impact'. Not to demean the slackness of Wal-Mart in refusing to pay for security staff to actually watch in real time the footage of the car park cameras, but the continued finger-pointing all comes across as a bit 'thin' to this viewer. And the finger is pointing at the wrong people! If people want cheap food it's the viewer that's to blame, not some faceless, greedy business owners. Humans are greedy and will take advantage of others where possible! Well, duh! We're damaging the planet with our insistence on cheap, tax-funded air travel, gas for our cars, and insistence on transportation of goods from faraway places instead of our own doorsteps etc but none of this would exist if we, as consumers, weren't choosing it every time we have an alternative choice.

As part of its 'look at the poor down-trodden American workers' strand it compares the United States employee situation with Wal-Mart in Germany where unions and government law have ensured that Wal-Mart employees there have managed to keep 36 days paid holiday a year, as if to say 'They're ripping Americans off because we let them'. So it's somewhat ironic that this week Wal-Mart pulled out of Germany, revealing that it hadn't made any profit there and couldn't compete with more established players in their field. So, despite the claims in the documentary that Wal-Mart can be tamed based on the German experience, what's better for the average Wal-Mart employee? To have a job or not have a job?

That's not to say that the information presented here isn't important or relevant. It is, but it was covered much more effectively in The Corporation and, frankly, if you haven't woken up to the fact that big business is based on greed, profiteering and eradicating competition where have you been for the last century? In America, this 'film' wasn't distributed in cinemas, and it's surprising that it has been in Europe. This is a fluffed up documentary for TV on a quiet night when there's not much on, not a film that makes money by putting bums on seats at the local movie emporium.

The DVD, much too highly priced even when the usual online discounts have been applied, has a 'behind the scenes' documentary that suffers from having too much gushing from naive young people working on the project and too much footage from an internal meeting that seems to be full of trendy, young types more interested in playing with their expensive laptops than listening to the director's pontifications on what research they need to do to make a film out of the basic 'no health care' idea. The deleted scenes have nothing to add to what was a very 'thin' film in the first place, and prove that the approach of using local amateurs to film scenes, rather than flying an official crew out, was not necessarily the best idea the director had to save costs. The interview with the director himself is more interesting, as he explains the history of the film, and encourages people to ignore the legal warnings that are on the start of all DVDs, by taking their rental/purchase and showing it in youth clubs and church halls, lending it to friends etc. to help spread the anti- Wal-Mart message.

This is definitely a 'watch as a rental when there's nothing on the telly' release and, as such, I find it hard to recommend, despite the good intent behind it. The message is important, but it's one that's been delivered far more effectively by other media.

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