[19 February 2007]
The beginning of this new century has been good to documentarians, thus far. Today their work is no longer restricted to public television and festivals, but fills the screens of small and independent theaters in the US much like foreign-language films once did. While topically diverse, the current output of documentaries clearly drifts to the left-liberal side of the American political continuum. Or, at the very least, many of the films in the current wave of releases not only tend to celebrate the small, the quirky, and the unique: they also frequently display a healthy skepticism towards the motives and actions of those who hold positions of power in America’s most prominent institutions, be it the federal government, corporations, or the church. These trends are exemplified by the titles collected into The Brave New Films Box Set.
All three films in the collection, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress, and Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, were produced and distributed by Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films. Wal-Mart and Iraq for Sale were also directed by Greenwald and are homegrown projects of Brave New Films. The Big Buy was picked up for distribution by Brave New Films from producer-directors Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck. All three are available as individual DVDs, as well as being part of The Brave New Films Box Set. Wal-Mart, in its limited theatrical release, was previously reviewed in PopMatters by Jesse Hicks, while the DVD of Iraq for Sale was recently reviewed by Cynthia Fuchs .
The third film in the collection, The Big Buy, chronicles then-US House majority leader Tom DeLay’s scheme to move corporate dollars into Texas legislative races with the intent of securing a Republican majority in the state house. The purpose behind this circumvention of Texas law, which prohibits corporate financial contributions in legislative races, had little to do with state issues, but was meant to ensure authorization of a plan to redraw Texas Congressional districts so as to create five new “safe” seats for Republicans in the US House. This strategy was the centerpiece of DeLay’s efforts to engineer a “permanent” Republican majority in Congress. Film makers Birnbaum and Schermbeck tell this story largely through the prism of Travis County D.A. Ronald Earle’s investigation and prosecution of the individuals involved in executing DeLay’s scheme, including, of course, DeLay himself.
Collected together, the three films form a trilogy organized around the theme of corporate power. Wal-Mart exposes the dark underside of big business in America, with a focus on how the company gouges its workers, at home and abroad, to deliver the low prices on which it hangs its reputation and appeal. The Big Buy closely examines the interface between corporate dollars and the major political parties. Finally, Iraq for Sale constitutes a case study in the consequences of corporate manipulation of the political process. There are elements of each of these angles in all three films, but the individual titles have their own particular axes to grind.
In addition to a common theme, the films also have a couple of rhetorical strategies in common. The most prominent of these is the framing of their central subjects – Wal-Mart, DeLay, private military contractors – as fundamentally anti-American. These actors are all represented as big fish who exploit and feed on little fish, crushing the American dream of freedom and prosperity for all in favor of freedom and prosperity for a wealthy few. In the case of Iraq for Sale, the little fish also include US soldiers, to whom contracting is not only an insult, but for whom sub-par services are delivered. The Greenwald directed documentaries in particular take pains to associate their little fish - workers, small business owners, the families of those who lost their lives working in Iraq, and soldiers, with symbols of patriotism and the heartland: the flag, quiet suburban neighborhoods, churches, small town main streets.
The Big Buy, meanwhile, is leavened by interviews with Republican loyalists who claim to reject DeLay’s desire to eliminate opposition candidates by any means necessary. Indeed, the big fish in all three films are also anti-American in that they are shown to be enemies of democracy. Corporations and their allies in the major party election machines are depicted as master manipulators of the political process, the goal of which is to enrich themselves and wield power against the public at large. Transforming Wal-Mart, DeLay, and military contractors like Halliburton / KBR into symbols of anti-Americanism is a clever strategy, one that lets progressives put on the patriot hat and helps to stir the emotions and brains of the uninitiated. Should a George W. Bush Republican or true believer in corporate America find themselves viewing one of these films one can only imagine that they would be driven to extreme distraction by the implication that it is they, and not the anti-war movement, or unions, or urban blue staters, who hate America.
The less obvious rhetorical strategy the three films have in common is the editing together of original footage, mostly interviews with insiders, “victims”, and knowledgeable observers, with found footage, mostly of their subjects or their subject’s representatives. Not surprisingly, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, Tom DeLay, and the execs and managers at Halliburton, Blackwater et. al., all declined to participate in the making of these documentaries. To make up for this lack of participation, the film makers edited in news and talk show footage, advertisements, and even corporate video. This opens the door to multiple ironic juxtapositions of original and found material such as, for example, Lee Scott talking about how important it is for Wal-Mart to give back to the community with activists chronicling how the company bails on its stores when its deferred tax bills come due. It becomes very easy to hang these subjects with their own words.
However, a primary weakness in all three films is how effectively they reveal their targets to be duplicitous and venal. It is very easy to come away from each film thinking that the problems uncovered in each case are the result of the particular personalities involved. This is particularly true of Wal-Mart, where, as Jesse Hicks notes in his review, there is little examination of the forces that make the company’s practices possible. It is possible to read the film’s message to be that all will be well if you just stop the next store from opening. Similarly, DeLay is such an overwhelming villain in The Big Buy that the occasional remark from Ronnie Earle about money being the root of evil in American politics, or Jim Hightowers’s critical exposition of the post-DeLay Republican leadership in the House, hardly register as correctives to the idea that getting rid of DeLay would fix, at least, Texas politics if not Congressional elections. Iraq for Sale goes the farthest in making systematic connections between the contractors and the structure of relations between big business and government, but, even here, the venality of those involved in the immediate issues at hand leaves a far bigger impression than the larger forces at work.
The importance of the here-and-now is another limitation on these films. This is particularly the case with The Big Buy, which has been almost entirely overtaken by events, but also attaches to Wal-Mart and Iraq for Sale. The film makers seem conscious of the fact that these works, which are intended as interventions in ongoing debates and issues, have expiration dates stamped on them, but this begs the question of what might motivate someone to buy the set, instead of, for example, the individual title that holds the most interest. One answer to this question lies with the Bonus DVD that comes packaged with the three films.
The main purpose of the added disc is to promote and introduce Brave New Films to a wider audience. The disc also includes deleted and extended scenes from, particularly, Iraq for Sale, but also Wal-Mart, and a trailer for Iraq for Sale. As an extension of the three films included in the set, the Bonus DVD re-presents those titles as examples of a particular kind of progressive and alternative media, and not just as stand-alone pieces of muckraking cinema.
The introductory features on Brave New Films include, “People Powered Film”, “Welcome to the Revolution”, and “Open Door Training Program”, The first starts as a general introduction to the company and its projects, but shifts into an explanation of its “field producers” and distribution programs. Anyone in the world can sign up to be a volunteer producer by filling out a form at the company website (BraveNewFilms.org) indicating location, interests, and experience, and when a project matches, you will be contacted to contribute.
Examples of what field producers may be asked to do include: provide video footage, contact others about the project, organize screenings, or help with publicity. The last two possibilities are the primary subjects of “Welcome to the Revolution”, which focuses on the company’s distribution strategy, otherwise known as “Brave New Theaters”. Brave New Films has been busy developing a grassroots network of individuals and organizations who hold screenings of the company’s titles, not just in theaters, but also in libraries, schools, community centers, and private homes. The company has opened this network to other film makers.
While there are no explicit restrictions on who can tap into the system, the appeal is designed for works that have little serious commercial potential, and, as a quick review of current titles reveals (BraveNewTheaters.com), has thus far mostly attracted works with a left-liberal political bent. The “Open Door Training Program” is a promo for the Brave New Films internship program, and is also included on the Iraq for Sale disc. Alongside these features is a post-script to Wal-Mart, which is focused on community organizing against the company, and two short pieces on a St. Louis, Missouri screening of Iraq for Sale attended by Robert Greenwald. The message of this disc is that you, too, can make films like Wal-Mart, The Big Buy, and Iraq for Sale.
The community organizing function of the films is also evident in the individual discs for each title, which are all packed with extras. Some of these are typical of most DVDs, “making of” features, commentary tracks, extended and deleted scenes, trailers for other titles, but others reflect the film-as-a-political tool ideal. Wal-Mart, for example, includes a series of mock ads, including a group featuring James Cromwell and Frances Fisher as “Bob and Wendy Whitebread”. Iraq for Sale includes a feature highlighting key votes in the US Senate on private military contracting. The discs for all three main titles include condensed “high light” versions of the films which run a class or meeting friendly 20 minutes.
The more typical extras are also as much political as film-oriented. Robert Greenwald’s commentaries on Wal-Mart and Iraq for Sale are engaging and smart elaborations on the narratives in each film and the process the production team went through to find interview subjects willing to have their statements recorded, a topic that inevitably brings the discussion back to corporate power. The Big Buy includes an interesting and well-conducted Dallas cable television interview with Birnbaum and Schermbeck about the film and how it became part of the DeLay spin machine—Ronnie Earle is investigating Tom DeLay to promote “his” movie!
In their reviews of Wal-Mart and Iraq for Sale, Jesse Hicks and Cynthia Fuchs both make note of the rough, cut-and-paste aesthetic of those films, and so it is with The Big Buy. While often smart and clever, and capable of delivering moments of artistry and beauty, more than anything these films are well-made agitprop for American progressives. Aspiring left-liberal and radical film makers will find much of value in the Brave New Films Box Set, as will community groups and activists looking forward to the company’s newest titles and opportunities for participation. Less active viewers will be better off attending screenings of titles that interest them, or waiting for the next Greenwald / Brave New Films release to hit the streets. Ultimately, if these films do their job, more idle viewers will eventually become the kind of people who will want to do more than wait and watch. And that would seem to be more the point in this case than selling DVDs.