Documentary film has long been mired in debates about objectivity. Once strived for amongst serious documentarians, the notion of an objective documentary slowly degraded as discussion became dominated by the idea that objectivity is impossible. Two new documentaries about Wal-Mart ignore the old debate entirely, shifting the question from whether objectivity is possible to whether it is even desirable. In the process, they reconstruct the documentary as a filmed editorial in which their arguments fit neatly into niches well-carved by the pages of America's political journals.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price, the latest film from progressive activist Robert Greenwald, and Why Wal-Mart Works & Why That Makes Some People Crazy, the first film in a planned series of free-market documentaries by director Ron Galloway, are both part of a new strain of documentary that seeks to use film as a tool for political activism. Low-budget and low-style, the films offer competing political perspectives on the retailer's more controversial practices, pitting free-market academic ideas against the egalitarian appeal of progressivism.
Both High Cost and Why Wal-Mart Works eschew the high-style visual showboating of, say, Michael Moore's documentary polemics, and instead opt for a straightforward, unpretentious procession of talking heads. Composed almost entirely of interviews with a few interspersed title cards, neither film makes any prominent efforts toward showmanship. The few bits of filmic flash that High Cost attempts to inject, usually in the form of animated text, are mildly embarrassing, like a high-school student's first experiment with iMovie. Galloway's film has the sense to avoid such amateur theatrics and comes off better for it.
If un-stylishly produced, however, both films are efficiently structured, transitioning effortlessly from topic to topic through a variety of framing devices. High Cost demarcates each of its different attacks on the retail giant with truncated statements by Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott in an attempt to make the company appear disingenuous. The film will, for example, show Scott talking about fair wages and follow it with an employee complaining of low hourly pay. Why Wal-Mart Works uses a simpler device, designating each of its segments with concise title cards that usually label one of the anti-Wal-Mart sentiments to which it's going to respond. Structural techniques such as these are standard operating procedure amongst essayists, and the result is that both documentaries feel more like op-eds than films.
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