Filmmaker Robert Greenwald counts among his many corporate enemies Wal-Mart, Burger King, Starbucks, Albertsons, Cigna, the Bush Administration, Halliburton and especially Fox News. Bill O’Reilly has labeled Greenwald “just to the right of Fidel Castro.”
The feather-ruffling activist began throwing red meat to his fiery liberal base in 2003 with the documentary Uncovered: The War on Iraq, which beat Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 to the distribution circuit by about a year.
He hasn’t stopped ever since. His production company, Brave New Films, has produced more than 40 hours of provocative video, from comprehensive, theatrically distributed features to three-minute YouTube videos to 30-second spots with an aim to enrage and enlighten his agitated choir about corporatism, the profit motive, private equity, war profiteering and the quagmire in Afghanistan. A new box set, The Activist Collection, amasses nearly everything Greenwald has produced in the past five years over an exhaustive 10 DVDs.
The films, including Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, The Real McCain, the Sick for Profit series and the many Fox Attacks! shorts, make for an informative, albeit blatantly one-sided and propagandistic resource for the MoveOn.org set. (The influential website co-funded some of Greenwald’s work.) At its best, Greenwald’s work preserves populist fury for posterity – this is the kind of collection that should be dropped in a time capsule if future generations want to know how the world worked at the dawn of the 21st century.
“It would be wonderful if it serves that purpose as well as inspiring people to be more active,” says Greenwald. “But when you’re working at this speed and intensity and level of pressure, the sense of responsibility is extraordinary. We don’t have the liberty to take years on a project, so we tend to be pretty much in the moment rather than looking at it from longer terms.”
Greenwald’s emergence as a lefty muckraker came late in an already lucrative career in commercial movie-making. Prior to Uncovered, he was most known for directing the musical-on-roller-skates Xanadu, one of the greatest bad movies of all time. “It was the political impact of the roller skates that really got to me,” Greenwald jokes.
In all, Greenwald directed or produced more than 70 theatrical films or TV movies before turning to political activism. “In retrospect, it was an inevitable movement, because so much of what I did [was] based on real stories. Probably 85 to 90 percent were social, political films based on real stories, everything from The Burning Bed, which was about spousal abuse, to a film about children whose parents where alcoholics, to a film about Amnesty International, to a film about the Love Canal.”
Spurred by concerns over the rush to war with Iraq and the media’s handling of it, Greenwald shifted his focus, indefinitely, to documentaries with Uncovered, where he also got his first taste of alternative distribution: Greenwald released the movie online.
“Coming from the commercial world has been incredibly helpful, both in terms of storytelling and distribution, but holding politics aside, it doesn’t move quickly. And my partners [MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress], rightfully so, said, ‘Let’s get it out immediately.’ Once we got some attention online and had great success, theatrical distributors started approaching us.”
Today, Greenwald releases most of his shorts online, and he says that collectively, they’ve been seen more than 49 million times. For filmmakers engaged in the new media zeitgeist, the encroaching obsolescence of the traditional distribution model is slow and inefficient. While it may take months or even years to complete a theatrically distributed feature, Greenwald and his team are able to comment on Republican hypocrisy and corporate malfeasance the day the news breaks.
Just last month, during President Obama’s State of the Union address, Greenwald used the Facebook page for his latest title, the compelling Rethink Afghanistan, to open a dialogue about the cost of war, running a counter of how much money was being spent on the war during the time the president spoke.
Greenwald sees YouTube, Facebook and other egalitarian social-networking sites as the future for all kinds of filmmaking. “It’s not just for political content or dogs on skateboards,” he says.
These days, the playing field for ideas such as Greenwald’s is much more open than it was when he launched Brave New Films. The development of blogs like the Huffington Post and the emergence of MSNBC as a liberal counterpoint to Fox News’ conservatism has changed the media landscape. Ideas that were once radical are now common knowledge: Without seeing it, some Democrats and liberals actually defended Fox News against Greenwald’s 2004 expose Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism; today, Fox News’ “fair and balanced” claims are a running gag.
But there is always work to be done, and the 64-year-old Greenwald shows few signs of slowing down and absolutely no signs of returning to mainstream filmmaking. In the meantime, you can always watch Xanadu again. Much to Greenwald’s chagrin, you can buy it at Wal-Mart for $13.32.