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Mr. Greenwald’s War

“Come look for me,” director Robert Greenwald e-mailed a reporter. “I am the short Jewish guy — and, they say, balding.”

Now that his latest documentary is out, Greenwald is finding that the real work is just beginning as he spends the next two months crisscrossing the country and Europe to promote Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. This Sunday he was busy in the Valley, speaking at a church and a synagogue. After the screening and discussion at Temple Kol Tikvah, in a space outside the rabbi’s office serving as an impromptu green room, Greenwald recounts a recent New York screening.

“I’m standing against the wall of the theater,” he says, “and see this guy holding a cell phone out in front of him ” — he makes an arm’s-length gesture — “which is not the way to make a call. Oh, shit, I thought, someone’s already pirating the film. But what are you going to do? So I stepped outside for a bit.”

Greenwald quickly returned upon learning that the man was a Wal-Mart consultant.

“ ‘What are you doing?’ I asked him. ‘Oh, I’m just making a phone call, trust me,’ he said. I told him, ‘Why should I trust you?’ ”

The men’s conversation soon became heated, and the consultant was escorted out.

Poor Wal-Mart. It had been on a PR roll with Hurricane Katrina, when it seemed as though every Louisiana and Mississippi sheriff was praising its help. Then came Greenwald’s film and a leaked corporate memo that acknowledged that nearly half of Wal-Mart’s employees’ children have no health coverage while the company encourages store managers to lower insurance costs by screening out overweight job applicants. With its 1.3 million workers and $285 billion in annual profits, Wal-Mart is virtually a parallel country, a banana republic without the bananas. Greenwald’s documentary suggests that it is also the kind of country the rest of America could become under the spend-and-cut policies of the Bush administration.

“The culture of fear is so strong,” Greenwald says, describing the making of his film, which had been shot in strict secrecy. “One of our three Hollywood backers dropped out because he thought it could hurt his chances of getting work. And even with the promise of secrecy, store employees were afraid to participate. A camerawoman would go to their homes at night, and they’d change their minds before she could get through the door — they were so certain that Wal-Mart would somehow find out and fire them.”

Greenwald is a youthful-looking 60-year-old who, having grown up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, still speaks like a New Yorker and does not consider himself an Angeleno — despite having lived and worked here for a quarter-century.

Wal-Mart is the latest in a series of guerrilla-style film critiques of corporate America that began with Michael Moore’s Roger & Me and continued with Super Size Me, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Greenwald’s own exposé of Fox News, Outfoxed. Last year, Moore broke new ground by allowing Fahrenheit 9/11 to be downloaded to home computers and by rushing it into release before the presidential election — knowing this would cost the film an Oscar consideration.

Greenwald has gone a step further with Wal-Mart by releasing the DVD for immediate sale and distribution among anti–Wal-Mart activists. He has also created WM*TV (www.walmartmovie.com/wmtv), whose deceptively homey ads counter the anti-Greenwald propaganda campaign that Wal-Mart has belatedly set up.

Even one week after Wal-Mart’s debut, the film’s Web site (www.walmartmovie.com) was busy spoofing a Wal-Mart Veterans Day TV spot — juxtaposing the company commercial with an interview of an injured Iraq war vet whom Wal-Mart denied medical coverage when he returned to his job.

“I’m trying to evolve a model where the film is never finished,” Greenwald says.

But isn’t this war of Web sites and DVDs (a pro-company documentary, Why Wal-Mart Works, is ironically riding on the coattails of Greenwald’s success) giving short shrift to public debate at the grassroots level?

“There’s always a danger in declining public participation,” Greenwald admits. “My films are tools for participation and community action.”

Greenwald is a movie and TV producer and director whose past credits include Burning Bed and Steal This Movie. (His direction of 1980’s ill-fated Xanadu figures prominently in the Wal-Mart campaign.) Today he divides his time between his two companies: RPG Films, for his commercial ventures, and Brave New Films, which produces his volunteer efforts, such as Wal-Mart. “Propaganda” is probably not how Greenwald would describe his movie, especially considering that many of the victimized people interviewed in Wal-Mart are heartland Republicans.

“I’ve been very conscious not to articulate ‘the solution’ in my films,” he says. “Our research for Wal-Mart found that there were Republicans who are waiting to be talked to. My inspiration here was Arthur Miller rather than Bertolt Brecht.”