According to the official movie web site for ‘Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price’, director Robert Greenwald - best known for his previous documentaries ‘Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism’ and ‘Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War’ - shot 400 hours of interviews for his film.
So it’s little surprise that the wily campaigner comes up with something emotive to kick off his new feature-length film - of which The Grocer has been given a sneak preview - an exposé of the world’s biggest (and for those that believe the hype, most evil) retailer.
As the opening credits are concluded, kindly old Don Hunter is seen running the family-owned H&H Hardware in Middlefield, Ohio, as Wal-Mart moves into town. Despite having traded since 1962, Mr Hunter goes out of business in five minutes (film time).
We are then treated to other such examples of how the Wal-Mart juggernaut’s arrival causes businesses to fold seemingly overnight in a series of shots showing abandoned main streets, all accompanied to the strains of Bruce Springsteen singing ‘This Land Is Your Land’.
It’s powerful stuff guaranteed to get the impartial viewer immediately on side, as little or no argument to
balance the scales is put across in the remaining hour and a half.
No surprise there, as this is good old-fashioned propaganda of the highest, or lowest, order - depending on your viewpoint - with testimony mainly from disgruntled former employees.
Wal-Mart’s cause is hardly helped by it apparently refusing to field anyone for interview. And that is where Greenwald, to give him his credit, has been rather smart. Piecing together scratchy footage of last year’s annual Wal-Mart conference jamboree and various TV interviews, Greenwald uses the retailer’s CEO, Lee Scott, to act as narrator. Scott is seen outlining Wal-Mart’s record - in glowing terms - on a number of subjects from the environment and job creation to employee relations and foreign sourcing.
Every time Scott says ‘white’, Greenwald’s film screams ‘black’ as it runs through a series of alleged misdemeanours, from Wal-Mart spying on suspected union members to claims that loyal employees, whose average income is under $14,000, are on the breadline, some even counting out the minutes of their lunch break in the canteen with nothing to eat because they can’t afford it.
But this is precisely where the film may fall down, at least for a viewing British public. Of course, even the most hardened among us may not like to think of retail workers living in alleged poverty. But quite how the plight of a US Wal-Mart employee living without health insurance (its scheme is accused of being too costly) may influence your average mum juggling two kids and the weekly shop at Asda on a Saturday demands a leap of imagination to say the least.
Similarly, liberal-minded consumers may be disturbed to hear Chinese factory workers complaining about conditions. But let’s face it, anyone who ever bought a tee-shirt for £2.50 could hardly have imagined it was made by the world’s happiest textile workforce.
It’s also dubious whether the British filmgoing public will be concerned to learn from the film about assaults, muggings and attempted murders in the darker recesses of Wal-Mart car parks. Viewers may sympathise, but Asda shoppers are hardly likely to start fretting about security at their local store.
In fact, Asda gets off very lightly. Save for a five-minute section outlining its row with market traders over a proposed store at Queens Market in East London, it barely gets a look in.
However, there is at least one theme that resonates - so back to Middlefield and Mr Hunter, and those like him who have allegedly been steam-rollered out of business by Wal-Mart as it buys up land and retail sites. With the UK’s planning laws restricting Asda’s expansion ambitions to a modest 25-30 stores this year and Sainsbury similarly constrained, that really only leaves one British retailer with a massive landbank and openly aggressive expansion plans - and most filmgoers are going to realise who that is.