CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 17 . . . .April 13, 2007
Wal-Town: The Film.
Sergio Kirby (Writer & Director). Ian McLaren (Productions Grand Nord Producer). Germaine Gee Wong (NFB Producer). Sergio Kirby (Loaded Pictures Producer). Sally Bochner (NFB Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2006.
66 min., 45 sec., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9106 290.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Cathy Vincent-Linderoos.
Wal-Town: The Film is an excellent portrayal of a 2004-2005 cross-Canada citizen-protest tour of Wal-mart stores. A small group of six university student-activists from Concordia decided to go across Canada in two consecutive summers to address their wide-ranging concerns directly at the front doors of Wal-mart stores. Their goal was to engage consumers of the stores in 36 different locations (of some 200 Wal-marts nation-wide) and to discuss the corporation's numerous violations of labour and human rights. A variety of receptions were filmed.
The Wal-town activists had prepared for the tour by doing up the facts on pamphlets, inviting a journalist, and soliciting some financial support from the Council of Canadians and several labour unions. Because the film, itself, would ultimately become a part of their arsenal -- endeavouring to heighten public awareness of how Wal-mart's stellar profits in Canada and elsewhere in the world have come about at an exorbitant cost to people in the developing world as well as to people here at home (in a variety of ways) -- it also shows various municipal officials, store managers, the "embedded" journalist, and a few employees being interviewed.
Wal-mart's strategy of buying product in vast quantity from countries where the supplying factory's workers receive deplorably low hourly wages and are not permitted labour unions is directly linked by the film to the closing down of small, owner-operated, well-established businesses in those Canadian towns where Wal-marts have opened. The result is obvious from the tour, as captured on film: vast expanses of landscape with Wal-marts have been built, relegating the once-vibrant, attractive downtowns to wasteland. Scenes of closed-down shops speak volumes and testify to the disastrous impact that Wal-mart has had upon what was once the core of attractive, "happening" local Canadian economies. Centres such as Stratford, ON, that have no Wal-mart have retained their cultures, but the fight goes on there, and new stores keep opening elsewhere at a high rate. Profits going to Wal-mart are funnelled away from this nation and go directly back to the U.S. where this privately owned company is headquartered. Employees are low-paid and do not share in the vast profits of the company, to put it mildly. The town of Guelph, ON, seen initially as trying to resist the advance of Wal-mart, was watching the decimation of a local property on the edge of town for a new Wal-mart as the film ends.
The film works on several levels - showing us the physical logistics of the tour-on-a- shoestring-budget, getting the issues out to consumers, and explaining the problems that the Wal-mart corporation has created and exacerbated. Third-world employees are vulnerable and easily exploited: for example, a single mother in a Guatemalan supply factory, who works all day long for under $5, is told she must stay much later as a rush order has to be filled. There is no opportunity to let a child at home on her own know what has happened or what has become of her mother. If you want to keep your job, although paid a pittance, you stay at the factory and only go home when your boss allows you to do so. A Jonquiere, PQ, store that succeeded in getting a labour union established was subsequently closed down completely by Wal-mart.
While some of the unscripted discussions at the front-door of stores were indicative of the unknowing, uncaring attitudes of people, it was the private interviews with mayors and others that provided the best understanding of the bigger picture. Politicians with their own pro-Wal-mart agendas have looked the other way while Wal-mart does what it wants. This is not business as usual, and we all suffer by ignoring the inroads being made. In Quebec, it was explained by a lawyer for the textile workers' union that it is important that this fight be taken on by others and not only left to the poorest among us. Although I was aware of and already consciously avoid Wal-mart stores whenever shopping, the figures cited astounded me.
This is a film whose time has come. Wal-Town: The Film shows a business that is a blight on other Canadian business, the Canadian worker and on the physical landscape. There will be no shortage of discussion after it is shown in Canadian classrooms. Teachers of business, law, politics, geography, careers and sociology will be rewarded by presenting the film in such a way as to allow students to come to their own conclusions and defend them. Keeping in mind that some students will not only be consumers, but employees or the offspring of employees, it is important to introduce the sensitive nature of this film before the class sees it. The use of the internet to explore how Wal-mart is viewed by others will motivate students to make up their own minds on the issue. Debating the issue will be a good related activity.
I like the youthful vibe of this DVD. The important tradition of music written and performed for the cause of social justice was evident, and the director did not waste time showing too much of any one scene. You had to watch closely both the subtitles in English while characters were interviewed in French at various points, especially when the speech was in French. If you are interested in hosting a screening at a library or town council meeting, you will find an excellent up-to-date web-page which gives details: www.nfb.ca/webextension/wal-town/index.php?lg=en.
Cathy Vincent-Linderoos is a retired teacher who lives in London, ON.
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