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Store Wars:When Wal-Mart Comes to Town

Globalization rears its ugly face in other places than massive protests of meetings with the worlds leaders. A far more hideous side can be seen in the spawning of chain stores in strip malls and shopping plazas across America and the world. The largest of them, Wal-Mart, has found itself as the feature of a new film, "Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town." View an exclusive interview with the writer/director of the film, and learn more about globalization through small-town eyes.

Video and Articles by Drew Jaya

May.6th.2001



View FrictionMagazine's exclusive interview with "Store Wars'" writer/director Micha X. Peled.

About the Film "Store Wars"

The Phenomenon

When Wal-Mart Comes to Town

More Perils of Indie Filmmaking

Life After "Store Wars"

Activist Filmmaker?

Read our review of "Store Wars."



"Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town" is the award winning documentary from writer-director Micha X. Peled. The public television supported program highlights the impact of Wal-Mart’s, a mega, multi-national discount retail chain, campaign to move into a small Virginia town and how it stirs the passions of local town politics. Peled, who is no stranger to the perils of documentary filmmaking, has won several independent awards for his work including this year’s Golden Gate Award for best Bay Area Documentary for "Store Wars."

Peled’s previous films "You, Me Jerusalem" and "Inside God’s Bunker" explored different aspects of the ongoing Middle East conflict. In 1995’s "You, Me Jerusalem" he followed the lives of a volunteer ambulance crew comprising of both Israeli’s and Palestinians while "In God’s Bunker" covered the Hebron Massacre and extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank the year before.

"Store Wars" covers new ground for Peled who this time focuses on the impact of multinational corporations on small communities and what that may imply for American culture. Stating that he first discovered the phenomenon from reading a few news articles on Wal-Mart moving into these small towns, Peled was compelled to investigate.

FrictionMagazine was at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival and met up with Peled to talk a bit about his new film.

Below are some of the highlights of general audience questions asked of Peled, associate producer Monica Lam, and production coordinator Sunshine Ludder, following the festival screening.

The film takes place over a period of a year in the town of Ashland, Va. How long was the actual process in total, including preparation and everything?

Peled
: Three years. This includes all the research and fund raising that was involved to get the program made. We also had to find the right town before Wal-Mart actually started moving in and Ashland was it.

What’s happening now with the film?

Peled: We’re actually now doing community events throughout the country. I recently arrived the other day from Davenport, Iowa where they’re facing their own Wal-Mart issues. The idea is we are taking this film to communities that are dealing with these issues to help them get their heads together about how to deal with this. And what I'm hearing from people in different towns … first, they say after seeing the film, "We're demoralized, then we feel angry, then we get stirred up, and then we get energized." So when I talk to these people and prepare them for the screenings, I tell them all that so that they're prepared to lead their own audience through that.

When I made the film and wrote the synopsis, I didn’t know myself what the ending would be. The way the synopsis went was: the end will determine whether this is the story about the triumph of a small group of grass-roots citizens who stood up to one of the largest multinational corporations in the world or is it a parable of our times about the unstoppability of these multinational corporations?

Have you had any reaction from Wal-Mart about the film now that it will be broadcast on PBS soon?

Peled: I haven't contacted them since. It was quite a story to keep their cooperation. At the beginning they refused us. Later on they agreed to participate. They participated but they kept a very tight watch on us. For example, the scene of the shareholders meeting. They allowed us to come and film that and when I knew that they were going to have their PR minders on top of us, I asked Monica to come with a second camera. So of course they assigned another PR flack to her and when our sound man went to the bathroom they went berserk because they didn’t notice. So, they were very controlling of the whole situation.

But the lawyer of Wal-Mart that you see in the film, actually afterwards told me that he thought the film was very fair and balanced and I went "Gee, would you put that in writing?" and he did. So if they want to sue, you know, come on over! And if they sue, the press headlines will be "Wal-Mart sues Teddy Bear." (Teddy Bear Films is Peled’s production company.)

Any word on people trying to stop Ikea, Target, Rite-Aid or other chains?

Peled: The issue is much bigger than Wal-Mart. It's about all these big box stores, absolutely. Wal-Mart is just the icon of all that industry. They're the biggest, they're the meanest, they're the most well known, but it’s about all of that.

There's been some feedback and suggestions that you return to Ashland, Va. in a couple of years to do a sequel to follow-up on the aftermath.

Peled: Well, we'll see. I don't want to spend the rest of my life on this issue.

How did your presence or the presence of the cameras affect the issue there?

Lam: Peled speculated on the possibility that Wal-Mart fought harder because we were there. At the same time one could say that the citizens fought harder because we were there documenting it and somewhat indicating their fight was of national importance.

Peled: I think that’s a very apt question. As filmmakers we like to pretend we're invisible and, we're like a fly on the wall. But we're not. And there's not a whole lot we can do about it but try and tell the essence of the story.

Did you see any kind of pattern between people who chose to move to a small town resenting Wal-Mart more because they were seeking a small-town life versus those who were born there?

Ludder: I don't agree with the assumption that is being made there. I wouldn't say it’s true across the board, but there's definitely a tendency that people who move to the town had an economic choice to move there. And a lot of times people who were born in the town and didn’t leave also did that for economic reasons but that was because of a lack of economic choice. So there was definitely a class division along those lines and probably some resentment that played into the whole process based on that.

Do you know if Wal-Mart has lost any of these fights?


Peled: Yes they have. There are over a hundred towns that have said no to Wal-Mart and there is a website you can go to called Sprawl-Busters. The founder of that is in the film and there's a list of all of these towns.

I want to say one more thing about Wal-Mart which is that it’s a very paranoid company and because of that I had to be very careful. One of the things that I didn’t want them to know is that I was looking for comments, particularly from employees and former employees of Wal-Mart about them, and some of that will by the way be at the website for the film.

In order to sort of not let them know that I'm looking for that information I got help from someone here in San Francisco, Josh Karliner. Corpwatch is an online entity that provides a lot of information about a whole bunch of corporations, not just about Wal-Mart. But they were very helpful to me in posting my announcements there and not revealing who we were and forwarding to us dozens and dozens of messages that came through of people that wanted us to know what’s going on with Wal-Mart in their town. In fact, the sequel to this film could be "What is it Like to Work at Wal-Mart Today?"

There was some comment that the exact division in the town was somewhat ambiguous as in not knowing specific council vote tallies.

Peled: Fair enough, I could see why he could think that. Actually the reason was we just didn’t have enough time to go into the whole election thing in more detail so we didn’t actually go through the rundown of the results of who won because we never met them before. The mayor fared. (You're going to have to see the program or else it will ruin it for you) But two out of three who won were Flamingo candidates.

I was wondering if any of the Flamingos were concerned with the sweatshop conditions in which a lot of the clothes for Wal-Mart and a lot of manufactured items were made or was it just focused on their community?

Ludder: I was actually, speaking personally, a little bit disappointed that there was a lack of consideration of things outside. I mean I feel that the Ashland struggle issue was concerned with preserving the quality of life in that town which I think is a very important issue. But there wasn't much focus put on questions of labor as far as I could tell.

Peled: Probably half of the Pink Flamingos are Republicans. I just came back from Iowa the other day and we showed the film there and people loved the film and then I gave a little talk. And I thought, well, instead of talking about the film I'll take it a step further and I spoke for ten minutes about corporate censorship and what it is doing to our freedom of speech -- when you can sing a song or do a painting about the flag and do whatever you want with the flag, but you cannot do that with a logo of the company. Logos of companies, we all know are much more powerful icons in our lives today than the flag.

Anyway, I talked about censorship. Wal-Mart for example, all the major magazines in this country send advance copies of the magazine to Wal-Mart because if they say it’s too provocative, they'll change the cover of the magazine. I thought the people would be concerned and they all told me they like that.

And even in Ashland, Mary, the leader of the Pink Flamingo’s, once it came up in discussion, she has four kids, she said "I like it that you can't get that type of music there!" So we just dropped the issue there. So sweatshops were just taking it another step.

More than once there was some frustration on the issue of the new people versus the old people in the town and those class issues.

Peled: The reason the film doesn't go any further in there is because it’s not a film about examining class in small-town America. It's about examining Wal-Mart and big box impacting small towns.

I definitely didn’t want to gloss over it. I didn’t want to take too much time with that. And I found the same, what we see in Ashland is typical of other towns. Often, certainly in the South, what you find is that the people who are born there, usually are of a lower socioeconomic class and don't have a tradition of participating in a public debate, of demonstrating … all of that is considered almost rude. They feel basically, that if you don't like your public officials go and change them in the next elections. You can write a letter to the editor, speak once, but then leave them alone.

The people who move in there are often of a better socioeconomic class. Many of them have participated in other kinds of grass-roots activism somewhere else. And they thought they were doing their democratic duty by participating and speaking out and all that. They could not understand why it was alienating the other part of the town from them.

Is the movement in Ashland completely over with?


Peled: You know the people that got together, the Pink Flamingo’s, a lot of them, they just like each other, they like hanging out, so they're still doing that, but they're trying to do positive things for the town. But there isn't a galvanizing issue like this one was, so it’s kind of weak right now.

Ludder: There are bumper stickers you can get that say "If They Come, We Won't Go." So people will participate in refusing to shop at Wal-Mart.

Lam: It actually hasn't been built yet so a lot of this is to be seen.

Why are they called the Pink Flamingos?

Lam: Well there's this type of local fund-raiser in which, in order to raise money, the people at one of the local churches overnight they will come and stick a pink Flamingo in your yard. In order to get rid of them you need to pay off the church. That's the actual real beginning of it.

Peled
: Again for time constraints, we didn’t go into it.




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