Wal-Mart film gets grass-roots launch

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[columbus, ohio] A screening of "Wal-Mart: The High-Cost of Low Price" at the First Unitarian Universalist Church here last week was more AA meeting - encouraging people to quit their dependence on the retailer-than movie preview.

"It's been three years since I've shopped at Wal-Mart," said church board member Michael Greenman in introducing the film. The assembled crowd of about 100 responded with raucous applause.

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."

The next `supersize me'?

But the film, from director Roger Greenwald and released 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 retail giant.

It's yet to be seen whether the movie will gains the traction of a "Supersize Me" or Michael Moore's "Roger & Me," especially considering its untraditional distribution formula and its decidedly humorless tone, punctuated only by a few clips from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," which pokes fun at Wal-Mart.

The film opens with clips of Wal-Mart CEO Lee 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 running the H&H Hardware store in Middlefield, Ohio. 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.

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.

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.

two sides

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, in a twist on the "Wal-Mart cheer,"to follow after her: "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 who questioned the morality of asking the poor to boycott Wal-Mart. "When I've got $100 to spend on groceries to stretch two weeks, I have no choice," she said. 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."

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