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Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price

Portraying Wal-Mart as the Darth Vader of retail, this film does all it can to champion the voices of those determined to rein in the giant. The company’s systematic and highly cynical manipulation of tax breaks and social welfare benefits is vividly exposed. For instance, the company appears to have a carefully crafted policy of not paying a living wage. Instead, it provides employees with detailed information about social welfare benefits available in their area that can be used to top up their Wal-Mart pay packets.

The film also describes instances when Wal-Mart has taken advantage of enticements from local authorities to locate in a particular town in exchange for short-term reductions or suspensions in business tax. When the tax-break period has come to an end, Wal-Mart has left behind perfectly serviceable, aircraft hangar-sized shops only to build new ones just outside the towns’ tax boundaries.

The family that owns Wal-Mart is appropriately named the Waltons, a surname associated with wholesome American values and fair play, thanks to a long-running US television series. The film shows how these new Wal-Mart Waltons are, in fact, destroying their homeland: their insatiable appetite for profit threatens everything from national labour rights through water quality to race relations.

Black Gold

*Black Gold* is a quiet film. There’s no voiceover narration telling the viewer how to react as the scenes unfold. It simply shows us how the coffee trade works through the eyes of Ethiopian farmers and, in particular, one man, Tadesse Meskela, who is determined to get a fair price for the coffee beans produced by the 70,000 farmers he represents. The film shifts back and forth between the lush but poverty-stricken hills of southern Ethiopia to coffee shops and businesses in the US, Italy and Britain. It is this alternating process that creates *Black Gold*’s most powerful effects. Cringe-worthy scenes from the ‘World Barista Championships’ – in which preening twentysomethings compete for the title of ‘best cappuccino maker’ – are immediately followed by a visit to an Ethiopian factory where women sort beans by hand. It’s not that these women shouldn’t have to do this job – but they should be paid more than 50 cents a day. A fair price is all that Tadesse Meskela and his farmers are asking for from potential buyers in the rich world. If he succeeds it will help to keep his region of Ethiopia free from dependency on food aid – which is more than can be said for the area from which Starbucks sources its ‘Fair Trade’ coffee.

2 Girls

Teenage angst in Istanbul. At first glance Perihan Magden’s novel seems to be about little more than the pent-up frustrations and inner turmoil of a pair of young women who are still too young to fly the family nest but too grown-up to feel comfortable in it any longer. Behiye and Handan meet and bond immediately, despite their differences – Behiye wears black, likes Western thrash bands, shoplifts and is angry with everyone; while Handan wears pink, adores Kylie and Britney Spears, and dotes on her (single) mother. From the outset, their friendship worries the adults around them. What is the nature of Behiye’s love for Handan? Is Behiye so emotionally unstable that Handan is at risk? Why does Handan allow Behiye’s possessiveness to rule her?

Half-way through *2 Girls* it seems certain that this is a book about an obsessive love one girl has for another. But author Magden skilfully develops it into something deeper than that. What if Behiye proves not to be the danger that everyone fears? Perhaps the rich boys that trail after Handan are the ones to watch. Or the families of both girls – tracking them down, holding them back.

At its core, this novel is about freedom and the different ways young women seek it out. It is also about the pain of losing freedom, just when you thought it might finally be within your grasp.

My only grumble relates to Magden’s writing style – in her effort to replicate teenage thoughts, she has created an obstructive, repetitive style. But if you can plough through the wordy sections *2 Girls* offers a decidedly grown-up picture of the highs and lows of life on the cusp of adulthood.

Sold Out: The true cost of supermarket shopping

It is widely acknowledged that the major supermarket chains in Europe and North America take advantage of their huge buying power to put the squeeze on their suppliers, forcing them to drop their prices and in so doing threatening the long-term viability of many family-run farms and small food manufacturers. Until I read Sold Out: the true cost of supermarket shopping I did not know exactly how. The book reiterates much that is known about the super/hypermarkets that increasingly dominate the world of food retailing in Europe, North America and, now, parts of Asia – environmental damage, exploitative labour practices, and so on. What held my attention was Young’s discussion of two recent investigations by the UK Government’s Competition Commission into the specific methods used. For example, supermarkets sometimes demand financial compensation from suppliers if sales of particular products are lower than expected. They have been known to request that suppliers help pay for the construction of new shops and the refurbishment of existing ones. Supermarkets have also lowered the price of products and then expected suppliers to ‘fund’ this price promotion. The list goes on and, amazingly, many of these practices are legal. The Commission’s findings paint a picture of supermarkets succeeding financially thanks in large part to the subsidies and sacrifices they extract from suppliers. Young focuses primarily on the UK, although he also includes information on many of the European supermarket chains, including Carrefour, and how they are moving into Asia. The world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, is also discussed.

Blue Gate Crossing

If we are to believe Hollywood, the emotional lives of teenagers are easy to depict on celluloid. Everything is black and white – there is little room for shades of grey. This is especially true when it comes to love since teenagers always know exactly who they’re attracted to and why, even if they can’t pluck up the courage to approach the object of their affection. Of course, experience tells us that Hollywood’s take on teenage life is a simplistic fantasy. More often than not, journeying through adolescence involves immersion in a dreamy world of shifting possibilities and contradictory emotions.

It is precisely this richly confusing state that Blue Gate Crossing inhabits. Set in contemporary Taiwan – amid bicycle lanes and high-school corridors – the film tells the story of three students caught in a love triangle. Lin Yueh-zhen is pretty and shy. Her best friend Meng Ke-rou is boyish and loyal. Then, there’s Zhang Shi-hao, a good-looking boy on the school swimming team. The friendship between the two best friends becomes strained when Yueh-zhen, who has a crush on Shi-hao, convinces Ke-rou to discover if he feels the same way. He doesn’t: Shi-hao actually fancies Ke-rou. And, yes, you guessed it, Ke-rou is secretly terrified that she’s in love with her own best friend. What could easily be a recipe for melodrama develops into a moving story about the nature of love. Although Blue Gate Crossing deals with the issue of lesbian attraction – rather wonderfully – it’s about much more than that. It’s about growing up, growing wiser and accepting that sometimes the people we love can’t love us back.

Seeds of Deception: Exposing corporate and government lies about the safety of genetically modified food

I should admit that I was sceptical about this book. I have long been opposed to the growing of genetically modified (GM) crops because I believe they pose a serious threat to biodiversity, but I’ve tended to dismiss sensationalist statements that scream about ‘Frankenfoods’ endangering human health. Having read Seeds of Deception my views have changed. Jeffrey Smith’s explanations of how GM foods are produced and what happens when the blunt techniques of this infant science go wrong are gripping. Smith has gone to great lengths to write a book that is both factually accurate and easy to read for non-science types. That’s most of us, after all. He has succeeded and, what’s more, he’s produced a genuine page-turner. Smith’s tales of suppressed evidence about GM foods’ potential to cause cancer, allergies and – in the case of one health supplement sold in the US – long-term disability and death are compelling. But equally important are his short-but-sweet notes on the science behind GM foods. Biotechnology firms like to assure us that they know what they’re doing, but Smith shows that they often don’t. Neither do the regulators charged with protecting us. His book boasts the footnotes to prove it.

Super Size Me & Go Further

North American culture has long relied on ever-increasing levels of consumption as a symbol of progress. But could resistance be growing to this ‘more, more, more’ attitude? Two new documentaries argue that the continent’s over-consumption has become a problem of mammoth and dangerous proportions.

Super Size Me chronicles a month in the life of Morgan Spurlock, a fit and healthy 30-something resident of New York City, as he embarks on what many an eight-year-old child would consider a dream come true. He has decided to eat nothing but McDonald’s food for a month and to limit his physical exercise to that of the average American office worker. Watching Super Size Me is painful but compelling. When Spurlock’s McDonald’s month begins he boasts ‘above average’ fitness and 11 per cent body fat. By the time he completes his experiment his body is distinctly lardy and he is dangerously ill. The three of the doctors who have agreed to monitor his health express utter shock that in just a few short weeks a McDonald’s diet has given Spurlock the liver of a chronic alcoholic, not to mention heart palpitations, shortness of breath, a limp libido and extreme mood swings.

Super Size Me also includes interviews with food industry critics such as John Robbins, the man who inherited the Baskin-Robbins ice cream dynasty only to disown it in favour of healthy eating. Although these are insightful, Spurlock’s physical decline is the most powerful thing about this film. With a film like this in circulation, it’s no wonder several fast food firms have recently announced they will scale back on meal portions.

Go Further also touches on fast food culture – arguing that much of it simply shouldn’t be considered food – but it is primarily concerned with the environmental damage wreaked by unfettered consumerism. The film takes us on the road with Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson and his band of friends as they travel south along the west coast of the US by bicycle and by a biofuel-powered bus, making frequent stops to speak to university audiences and to meet pioneering green businesses. Go Further could so easily have ended up a dumbed-down celeb talkshop, but instead it’s a charming and idiosyncratic take on green and healthy living likely to appeal to precisely the demographic group Harrelson wants to reach – affluent 20-somethings. Harrelson himself comes across as a bit odd – his raw food diet certainly raises eyebrows – but there’s no questioning his environmental awareness. ‘We’re in the middle of a mass extinction and we’re the cause of it,’ he says, baldly stating what so many people in the consumptive West refuse to acknowledge.

Asiye's Story

Political activist Asiye Guzel has chosen not to tell the reader everything that happened to her during the two weeks she was held at ‘Security HQ’ by the Turkish security police in 1997. She goes only so far – describing the ‘suspension’ torture that preceded the rape – and then simply acknowledges that the rape followed. I think this was a wise decision: it encourages readers to shift their focus from what rape is physically to the bigger issue of what rape can do to a person’s psyche and why any state’s use of it to quell political opposition must be opposed. Guzel recreates the debilitating self-loathing she felt after the assault – offering a graphic portrayal of the ‘classic’ situation in which the victim blames herself. After her time at Security HQ she was sent to prison and initially hid the fact that she had been raped.

In Asiye’s Story, Guzel paints a vivid picture of the emotional states she went through. She tells of periods of desperate sociability that were followed by extreme withdrawal and a desire for death. Terrible nightmares were a recurring problem. Eventually, she admitted to friends that she’d been raped and she spoke of it in court, turning her case into a national sensation. Although this short book is about Guzel’s individual experience, it’s clear that she has written it not just as a form of catharsis but because ‘it is vital for people to demand retribution from a state where torture and rape are matters of policy’.

The World We’re In

If press reports are to be believed, the majority of Americans genuinely do not understand why criticism of their country is growing in every corner of the globe. If they listened they would hear a myriad of voices protesting against unrelenting American imperialism. Now, one of Britain’s most respected political thinkers, Will Hutton, has joined the fray with *The World We’re In*, a follow-up to his influential critique of Thatcherism, _The State We’re In_. What sets Hutton’s book apart from countless others that have argued against Uncle Sam is its exploration of how the rise of American conservatism since the 1960s has given birth to an unequal financial management system that enslaves the world. Hutton demonstrates not only how American ‘feral capitalism’ has produced unsustainable levels of domestic inequality, but also how it exports economic and social disintegration through global financial markets. This description of how extreme capitalism works makes for a captivating read and sets the stage for Hutton’s main argument: that Europe must stop mimicking America and instead find a way of strengthening its tradition of socially responsible capitalism. Although focused almost exclusively on North America and Europe, it’s of interest to anyone who wonders just how the world’s only superpower can be peacefully reined in. My only major criticism is Hutton’s tendency to assume that if left to its own devices Europe would naturally develop a more caring form of capitalism. Although there is evidence that European political and business leaders are increasingly aware that current trends in global inequality are not sustainable, Europe will still need a lot of pushing – from within and without its borders – to realize what Hutton sees as its potential as a force for worldwide equity.