David vs. Goliath, the hare and the tortoise—even Beauty and the Beast are woven into the digital fabric of journalists Heather Hughes and Hanson Hosein as they trek across America in search of truly free (and local) enterprise. They vow to eschew interstate highways and big-chain lodgings, restaurants and retailers but are forced by circumstance to abandon their principles just as the overwhelming majority of people who oppose BIG BOX domination sooner or later succumb to the two-headed lure of price and convenience.
Their point is made early on. A basket of just-harvested vegetables grown near their home in Kelowna, B.C. offers more colours of tomatoes than the NBC peacock and will, no doubt, come as a huge surprise for many viewers who only know ruby-red tomatoes and orange carrots. Sadly, the alarming notion of how the food grown by corporate Old MacDonald is tarted up for the sake of improving its presentation appeal in the super supermarkets is left for another day.
With 4,000 stores already and the same amount planned, Wal-Mart, the “planet’s retail overlord,” is the number one punching bag of the filmmakers and many of their Mom and Pop entrepreneurs which populate the small-town America landscape that is lovingly documented. Particularly effective is the voiceover of a Wal-Mart advertisement extolling the improvements to the quality of life in Gastonia, NC while the camera shows the closed-up shops of Main Street. Yet that compelling moment is both balanced and lost when a local resident recalls “the mills have all closed.”
The inability of America to retain manufacturing jobs is also mentioned with a Forbes 500 list of companies that have been “forced” to outsource much of their production offshore. The recent Ford layoffs (30,000 jobs), is a current example. No independent solution there—big ticket items, necessarily, demand the economy of scale that an independent producer cannot provide.
Further ironies abound. Homemade ice cream served in a Pepsi cup; Hosein’s Apple laptop; the unsold scrub board in a real General Store; the poster-ad in Flagstaff, Arizona which declaims “If you oppose Wal-Mart you’re anti-American” (er, guess who paid for that?); Yelm, Washington city council banning the words Wal-Mart and big box from their meetings for fear of litigation; the “From Gasoline to Vaseline” slogan of Tillies Mini Mart; Troy Mack’s charming animations depicting the added value of buying local (which, as a cartoon, seems a less serious problem than what it purports to remedy); the filmmakers’ moral dilemma of whether—at Wal-Mart’s request—to allow CNN to broadcast some of their footage as counterbalance to a very nasty piece about the corporate monolith; Utica Club beer rising from the retail ashes to become a tangible symbol of independent production; the spin of union officials and Wal-Mart’s retort to the attempt by the employees in Jonquière, Québec to become the first unionized shop in, er, North America (the store was closed) …
Finally, in Powell, Wyoming the solution emerges. The town that corporate America forgot (too small!) fights back and prospers by selling shares @$500 and operating its own department store. It’s a huge success, built on “self-reliance, and a sense of community.” Word has it that the franchise IPO is just waiting for securities commission approval. Perhaps, in time, David could slay McGoliath in the financial arena. After all, didn’t Wal-Mart start out as just one store, then deliver the American dream one big box at a time to its shareholders? JWR