Grim, Humorless Film Paints Giant Retailer as Destructive Force

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COLUMBUS, Ohio ( -- A screening of “Wal-Mart: The High-Cost of Low Price” at the First Unitarian Universalist Church here yesterday was more AA meeting -- encouraging people to quit their dependence on the retailer -- than movie preview.
Photo: AP
The new film, 'Wal-Mart: The High-Cost of Low Price,' includes charges that have been contested and already reformed or legally settled by the retailer.
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“It’s been three years since I’ve shopped at Wal-Mart,” church board member Michael Greenman said when introducing the film. The assembled crowd of about 100 responded with raucous applause.

Low-cost equipment
While making excuses for the modest sound system -- a microphone held up to the TV and overhead projector -- Mr. Greenman added: “This film and our work is a campaign to reform, not destroy, Wal-Mart.”

But the film, from director Roger Greenwald and released yesterday for screenings in hundreds of churches, community centers and people’s homes nationwide, is indeed no love fest but an unadulterated attack on the word’s largest retailer. And as part of a weeklong publicity push, dubbed “Higher Expectations Week,” by a coalition of union members and activists under the umbrella Wal-Mart Watch, the film is expected to further embroil the already-battered retailer.

Decidedly humorless tone
Whether the movie gains the traction of a “Supersize Me” or Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me,” it will do so despite its untraditional distribution formula and its decidedly humorless tone, punctuated only by a few clips from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" ruthlessly poking fun at Wal-Mart.

Mr. Greenwald’s film lobs many charges -– including many that have been contested and already reformed or legally settled by the retailer -- but offers little in the way of new information.

Employing a narrative format, it portrays the personal stories as told by former frontline workers, managers, small-business owners, activists and even a struggling wife-and-husband team working 14-hour days in a Wal-Mart factory in China. It also rehashes the impact of Wal-Mart on small-town America, in cities most Americans have probably never heard of, like Hearne, Texas, and Middlefield, Ohio.

Ironic juxtapositions
But the predominating technique of the film is the ironic juxtaposition. In one clip, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott says with conviction: “Wal-Mart offers the right job at the right time ... and gives them a step up the economic ladder.” It cuts to a former Wal-Mart manager who confesses that he once cut hours on employee time cards. It then rehashes a class-action sex-discrimination case won against the retailer.

The film opens with scenes of Mr. Scott at one of the retailer’s raucous annual meetings. “We focus on doing the right thing,” he says, adding that Wal-Mart must “stay the course” because it’s “too important to families struggling on a budget.”

The film then tells the story of three generations of the Hunter family, who ran the H&H Hardware store in Middlefield. The music is nostalgic, with acoustic guitar playing subtly in the background, but grows ominous before bold letters reminiscent of a pulp-fiction book cover read: “Wal-Mart Descends on Middlefield.” Clips of bulldozers and for-sale signs on Main Street storefronts follow along with a dark soundtrack.

Devaluation of real estate
Then the son of the store’s founder, Jon Hunter, rails against the town council for luring the retailer with subsidies. Mr. Hunter also relates how the sale of the real estate for the family was hampered by the devaluation of the property. “Anytime Wal-Mart comes into town they knock the value down and there are going to be a bunch of empty buildings and nothing will sell,” he said the appraiser told him.

After taking on every possible issue or angle against Wal-Mart -- from environmental crimes to blaming it for the “race to the bottom” nature of globalization -- the 90-minute film ends by retelling the stories of community activists and hundreds of “site fights” in places like Inglewood, Calif. An unprecedented grass-roots effort stymied the retailer’s development plans there, as well as dozens of other communities nationwide.

The closing message to activists seems clear: Stop Wal-Mart from even opening.

'I hate Wal-Mart' cheers
As the film closed inside the sanctuary of the Unitarian church, Kathleen Levine, a representative of Wal-Mart Watch and an Ohio health-care activist, led the discussion, but not before suggesting attendees stretch and follow her in a cheer: “I hate Wal-Mart,” she yelled. “I hate Wal-Mart, I hate Wal-Mart.” The audience happily obliged.

The discussion that followed was notably more nuanced, though. One attendee asked: “If we quit shopping at Wal-Mart and start shopping at Target, is that the answer?”

Despite Target’s non-unionized work force and similar wage and benefit levels, Ms. Levine said yes. “You make Wal-Mart hurt and then other corporations will follow,” she said.

That message wasn’t shared by all, though. There was the single mother working three jobs and a Wal-Mart shopper who questioned the morality of asking the poor to boycott Wal-Mart.

'Shaming' tone criticized
“When I’ve got $100 to spend on groceries to stretch two weeks I have no choice.” Then there was the retired stockbroker who is now a used-car salesman who criticized the “shaming” tone of the movie. “You have to deal with the fact that people are going to shop at Wal-Mart. You have to motivate their self-interest.”

Despite the back-and-forth, though, Costco, known for high wages and an enviable health plan, was all but christened the savior by discussion’s end, with the fervor growing heated when attendees swapped rumors about just where exactly Costco would open its first store in central Ohio next year.

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