BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- The contentious debate over the impact of Wal-Mart Stores here 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," produced for $1.8 million and released last week, is a critical examination directed by Robert Greenwald, a filmmaker whose resume 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.
Wal-Mart already has fired back at Greenwald, posting a video on walmartfacts.com disputing several of the film's claims about wages and workforce diversity. Bob McAdams, vice president of corporate affairs, said the company "does not view this film as a major hurdle or threat," and dismissed grass-roots screening events, saying they would likely attract people who already have negative opinions about Wal-Mart.
At the New York City premiere last week, a Wal-Mart consultant was asked to leave the theater after allegedly trying to record the film using a cell phone, according to reports.
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 No. 1 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 theme stands in contrast to allegations of tampered time cards, union-busting, illegal immigrant workers, expensive health care benefits, gender bias and poverty in Greenwald's 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.