When asked how he differs from documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, Robert Greenwald deadpans, "He's taller than me. He has a beard."
For his part, Greenwald is not backed by major studios. His films receive next to no traditional advertising. And he resorts to no gimmicks or self-aggrandizing promotion. Also, unlike Moore, he doesn't appear onscreen. Instead, Greenwald uses an unobtrusive camera to expose his version of the downside of Bush culture. In recent years, he has become one of the left's most thoughtful documentary filmmakers.
Last year, he directed and produced "Uncovered," a probe that supports allegations that the Bush administration lied to justify the Iraq war. Greenwald also helmed "Outfoxed," an indictment of Rupert Murdoch's foray into television journalism through the Fox network. This week, Brave New Films will release Greenwald's latest picture, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," a searing look at the business practices of the world's leading retail giant.
If Greenwald's recent films reflect his love for the anti-Bush underdog, what distinguishes the new film is Greenwald's sympathy for Red-State Republicans, in particular those who had to close down their mom-and-pop stores once the Bentonville, Ark.-based monolith came to town with its unbeatable prices.
The documentary begins with the story of Middlefield, Ohio's Hunter family, who for three generations ran a successful hardware store. The camera reveals a Ronald Reagan calendar and a George W. Bush poster in H&H Hardware; the Hunters are proud gun owners who wear Army camouflage caps and unfurl the American flag outside their store. Yet as this tale unfolds, Wal-Mart receives huge tax abatements from state and local government to erect one of its super-sized stores locally. Greenwald films a bulldozer dumping a massive pile of dirt, an image that covers the entire screen, metaphorically burying and silencing the Hunters and us.
In the course of the 98-minute documentary, Greenwald presents a portrait of a corporation that provides inadequate health care, engages in anti-union tactics, abuses the environment and pays unconscionably low salaries.
Wal-Mart denies doing anything illegal. The company asserts that its stores improve the local economy by providing jobs and goods.
Wal-Mart's in-house ads deploy Asians, women, Latinos and blacks touting the great opportunities at the company, yet a number of minorities and women testify on camera to alleged systemic racism and sexism.
Greenwald's work is not merely compelling filmmaking. He's also breaking ground in film production and distribution, using the Internet to drum up interest and sell DVDs. He even enlists a team of volunteers to shoot footage. Volunteers also host house parties and screenings at synagogues, churches, schools and other alternative outlets, which Greenwald says enables him "to reach people who don't agree with you."
Greenwald reports that he is $700,000 in debt since a major investor pulled out of the Wal-Mart project. He's also being attacked by Wal-Mart, which has released a video denigrating him. But he remains upbeat about the film: "We're having an effect already ... Wal-Mart should be scared."
Greenwald concludes his documentary with the tale of two cities, Chandler, Ariz., and Inglewood both of which recently defeated Wal-Mart's bid to open stores in their communities. As gospel music plays on the soundtrack, a lily-white Arizona Republican and a Latina reverend from Inglewood marshal signatures for their petitions to prevent Wal-Mart from entering their towns.
Then, Greenwald composes a montage of citizens with placards and smiling faces, people who have resisted the encroachment of Wal-Mart all across the country. In a reverse of the bulldozer metaphor from earlier in the film, these images of victorious populists cover up a small photo of Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, as if to visually disprove his statement that only "a small group of people don't want you in their community."
Writers Bloc will host former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke in conversation with Robert Greenwald on Friday, Nov. 4, 7:30 p.m., at the Landmark Cecchi Gori Fine Arts Theatre, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 335-0917. For DVDs and screening information for "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," visit www.walmartmovie.com.