Let me start with the bad part. Like may other informative, compelling documentaries released of late and filmed on digital video, WALMART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE is not an exciting visual experience. This is not to denigrate the content or suggest that you should avoid it. It's just that you don't have to make a special effort to hunt it down at the cinema: DVD is okay. Now to the good stuff. To my mind, WALMART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE is the best of the recent crop of documentaries claiming to uncover corporate malfeasance, despite the fact that, on the face of it, ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM has the more spectacular story and McLIBEL has the most obvious narrative arc. To my mind, WALMART did everything a good expose-doc. does: it held my interest, it made me really think about my opinion on key issues, it will actively change my day-to-day actions and it made me want to go out and find out more. So let's tackle each of these in turn.
I actually didn't think I would be that interested. We all know that big corporations pay crappy wages and that it is hard to make ends meet on a full-time salary. Call me callous but this never really bothered me before. And we also know that when a big supermarket moves into a small town this decimates the small mom & pop local businesses. Again this didn't really worry me, even when Tesco (a big UK supermarket chain) moved in my parents little country town. It struck me as economically logical - bigger chains can buy in bulk and pass on negotiated savings to consumers. Consumers love this stuff! Why should the supermarket be punished for doing well? To me, this was just fair competition. The key word here is FAIR. Because over the 90 minutes of this documentary, the director, Robert Greenwald, laid out the numerous ways in which WALMART wasn't playing FAIR. From cheating local government out of subsidies, to cheating their own employees out of hours worked (literally changing the computer records), to spying on unionisers and obstructing employees' right to associate, to disregarding Supreme Court orders to clean up the environment they were so recklessly polluting, to exploiting Chinese workers. The whole thing was just an embarrasment. The director brilliantly brings this incendiary material alive with lots of interviews with real people in real surroundsings (something the ENRON doc missed). In addition, he brilliantly inter-cuts this material, much of which is just flabbergasting, with painfully greasy Walmart commercials and corporate videos featuring the CEO and clips from US satirist, Jon Stewart's Daily Show. Companies like WALMART and ENRON give capitalism a bad name and that makes me mad.
This documentary also made me reconsider my opinion about the way in which, geeky I know, local planning law works in this country. A big chunk of the doc. looks at how Walmart is able to gain local government subsidies to put up megastores, some of which go unused. Now, in the UK, as I understand it, if a supermarket wants to build, it has to pay local govt. and not the other way round. The local community should be a net receiver of schools and roads and doctor's surgeries. Never could I have imagined that I would come to the conclusion that the byzantine UK planning law was humane, but now I kind of get it. The documentary will actively change my day-to-day life, insofar as I will avoid ASDA (owned by Walmart). And I will research whether Tesco and Sainsburys, the two big UK supermarket chains, are guilty of the same things.
So, I urge you to check out this documentary, even if on DVD. It is thought-provoking, informative, and if entertaining is the wrong word, then compelling certainly fits.
WALMART: THE HIGH PRICE OF LOW COST was released in the US last November and in the UK last Friday. There is no theatrical release date as yet for Europe or Australia.