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Laramie Movie Scope:
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices

A movie that generates a lot more heat than light

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 1, 2005 -- “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices” is a documentary exposé about why you shouldn't shop and Wal-Mart, why Wal-Mart employees should unionize across the country, and why you should organize to keep Wal-Mart out of your community if it isn't already there. It features compelling interviews with former Wal-Mart executives, employees and owners of family run businesses that who broke when Wal-Mart stores opened nearby. Despite that, it seemed slow-moving. I thought it would never end.

The information in the film is largely anecdotal and not analytical. It does give some statistics about Wal-Mart's effect on national, state and local governments, but there is little context provided for these statistics. The documentary by Robert Greenwald (“Uncovered: The War on Iraq” and “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism”) consists mainly of interviews about individual people's experiences, contrasted with a “we are the greatest” speech given by a Wal-Mart chief executive officer, Lee Scott. The experiences of Wal-Mart employees and managers conflict sharply with the statements made by Scott and positions stated in Wal-Mart's advertising.

Most of what is in the film is well-known by anyone who reads a major newspaper every day, but may not be known to those who don't keep up with the news. The film reports on the cases of undocumented aliens working as cleaning crews in Wal-Mart stores. This has been well-covered in national newspapers. It also reports on Wal-Mart's agressive anti-union tactics, which are common in American business today. It also details some of the attempts by community residents to keep Wal-Mart out of their communities or neighborhoods. The film also touches on the class-action lawsuits against Wal-Mart for alleged sex discrimination. These matters have also been extensively covered by the national media.

One subject that has not been well covered by the national media is the high crime rate in Wal-Mart parking lots. The documentary makes the argument that with very little effort, Wal-Mart could greatly reduce crimes such as robbery, rapes and murders in its parking lot. One very ironic segment of the film shows a man stalking a woman he is about to murder in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The narrator says that this footage would not have been available except for the fact that this particular Wal-Mart had put up exterior cameras expressly to monitor possible union activity in its parking lots.

Another subject that the documentary covers better than the national media is Wal-Mart's extreme stinginess. While Wal-Mart toots its own horn quite well about its charitable contributions, those contributions are insignificant compared to its profits. One astounding graphic shows that Wal-Mart employees give millions of dollars to a fund to help other employees while the Walton heirs (with a combined fortune of $50 billion), own 40 percent of Wal-Mart, gave only $1,000 to the same fund. Another graphic shows the Walton heirs give a tiny percentage of their fortunes to charity while Microsoft founder Bill Gates and CNN founder Ted Turner have given vastly greater sums. This segment of the film makes the Walton heirs and Wal-Mart corporation look very Scrooge-like. Although Wal-Mart got a lot of publicity for donating $20 million for hurricane relief recently, total Wal-Mart charitable contributions are only a small fraction of the money the company annually gets back from federal, state and local governments in direct and indirect subsidies.

Government subsidies to Wal-Mart are covered in some detail in the documentary, along with another little-known Wal-Mart problem, environmental degradation from fertilizers and other materials that Wal-Mart stores outside. Locally, Wal-Mart is one of the chief light pollution offenders with all-night glare blasting out for miles in all directions from the store's poorly-shielded parking lot lights. Contrary to Wal-Mart's “made in America” advertising campaign, the documentary argues it is America's biggest importer of Chinese goods and that it operates sweatshops in China, South America and elsewhere. Interviews of some foreign sweatshop workers are included in the film.

In short this is an anti-Wal-Mart film that emphasizes emotional stories of individuals rather than analytical arguments. This is what gives the film its power. The stories of greed, racism and sexism are truly disgusting, but it seems more like propaganda than a rational argument. As one of my college journalism professors used to say, “In a country as big as this, you can find 12 examples of anything,” so anecdotal evidence does not make compelling journalism. There is no doubt that Wal-Mart is the most hated company in the United States. I saw this film (actually a digital projection) on Nov. 16 in Laramie about three days after thousands of screenings around the country that started on Nov. 13. The room was packed with people who applauded after the film ended, and most of them probably will continue to shop at Wal-Mart anyway.

There is no doubt that Wal-Mart has lowered corporate standards in America. Wal-Mart has lowered wages and benefits for many people who don't even work or shop there. There are solutions to the problems caused by Wal-Mart. Better zoning and land use regulations would help with the environmental and law enforcement problems. Unionization would help address the wage and benefit issues. It is true that Wal-Mart engages in underhanded anti-union tactics, but it is also true that employees keep cutting their own throats by voting against union representation. At some point, workers must unite, develop spines and work together nationally, or continue to be exploited by Wal-Mart and other companies. Lastly, the nations of the world need to adopt better labor standards and practices before all nations are dragged down to the lowest common denominator of wages and working conditions. There should be no safe haven for sweatshops. This film rates a C+.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2005 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)