BOSTON — The contentious debate over Wal-Mart's impact on American society is coming to screens — and to churches, universities and community centers — in two documentaries that present starkly different views of the world's largest retailer.
"Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices," budgeted at $1.8 million and set to go into general release on Friday, is a critical examination directed by Robert Greenwald, a filmmaker whose résumé includes "The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron," and "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism."
"Why Wal-Mart Works and Why That Makes Some People Crazy" is a positive look at the lives of Wal-Mart associates that was financed for $85,000 by brothers Ron and Robert Galloway.
The films represent the latest volleys in the battle between the $285 billion firm and its critics.
Wal-Mart already has fired back at Greenwald, posting a video on its walmartfacts.com Web site disputing several of the film's claims about wages and workforce diversity. Bob McAdams, vice president of corporate affairs, said the Bentonville, Ark.-based company "does not view this film as a major hurdle or threat," and dismissed grassroots screening events, saying they would likely attract people who already have negative opinions about Wal-Mart.
Greenwald said 1,000 churches nationwide, in addition to student and business groups, have signed on to show the film.
Still, Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of Charleston, S.C., consumer behavior firm America's Research Group, said: "I am doing my Christmas surveys right now on where people are going to shop and the number-one answer is still Wal-Mart. I think this [documentary] will have more traction in the media than with consumers."
Wal-Mart gave the Galloways unusual access by allowing them to film in stores. There was no executive-level cooperation or financial assistance from the company, said Ron Galloway, a former stockbroker whose other film credit is a PBS documentary.
"I fell in love with the associates," he said. "They are genuine, earnest people and they are what make the whole thing work, the associates at store level. Wal-Mart helps more people than they hurt."
The Galloway film, available for sale online starting Nov. 15, uses the company's Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as one of its centerpieces. Wal-Mart was lauded for its quick response in bringing food, water and medical supplies to victims.The Galloways also interviewed Sha-Ron, a former drug addict and single mother of seven, who was living out of her car and now works at a Wal-Mart in California. In the film, she praises Wal-Mart's $3-per-month dental plan.
These elements stand in contrast to allegations of tampered time cards, union-busting, illegal immigrant workers, expensive health-care benefits, and gender discrimination and poverty served up by current and former Wal-Mart workers in Greenwald's film.
"I watched so many people go without lunch that I stopped eating in the [employee] lounges," Weldon Nicholson, who worked 17 years in Wal-Mart Supercenters and Sam's Clubs, said in the film.
Greenwald intersperses interviews with statistics, such as the number of Wal-Mart workers on public assistance — more than 12,000 in Florida and 10,000-plus in Georgia. He interviewed Josh Noble, a worker at Wal-Mart's Tire & Lube Express division in Loveland, Colo., who saw his wages rise $1.07 an hour over a three-year period. Noble's attempt to organize the Loveland TLE was defeated in a 17-to-1 vote. The National Labor Relations board opened an investigation into whether Wal-Mart improperly influenced the Loveland vote.
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