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We're not lovin' it
A region 2 DVD review of McLIBEL by Slarek
 
"He tilted back in the decaying lawn chair, almost went over on his
back, and used up some more of his screwdriver. The screwdriver
was in a glass he had gotten free from a McDonald's restaurant.
There was some sort of purple animal on the glass. Something called
a Grimace. Gary ate a lot of his meals at the Castle Rock McDonald's,
where you could still get a cheap hamburger. Hamburgers were good.
But as for the Grimace ... and Mayor McCheese ... and Monsieur Ronald
Fucking McDonald ... Gary Pervier didn't give a shit for any of them."
Stephen King – Cujo

 

There's a lovely moment in Terry Zwigoff's superb documentary Crumb where the subject of the film, cartoonist Robert Crumb, observes with undisguised disgust the parade of human billboards that pass him in the street, teenagers with t-shirts proclaiming their admiration not for a particular musical artist or film but for a multi-national corporation. Man, I cheered at this. In a world where these corporations spend millions each year on a wide range of advertising strategies, here are people openly willing to participate in this promotional onslaught. But they're not doing it for a share of this advertising budget. No sir. By handing over money for these t-shirts and baseball caps, they are freely and willingly paying these big corporations for the privilege of advertising their tawdry goods. This has to be one of the most depressing triumphs of modern corporate capitalism, not just that they have created a ubiquitous brand image, but that they have somehow managed to convince an army of devoted drones to hand over their money and spread the word for them.

The rise of the oversized multi-national corporation is increasingly being recognised as counter to everything that they and their often vocal supporters claim to represent. Those who champion global capitalism repeatedly claim that government ownership of industry is bad and private ownership is good, but when one company – one huge, bloated corporate giant – makes the operating system that sits on the vast majority of the world's computers, can this really be seen as a good thing? With no chance of anyone offering serious competition, just what is the advantage in this being in private rather than government hands, aside from the ability to spread beyond national borders and make countries throughout the world dependant on a product that is made in the USA? Ah, now there's the rub.

Which brings us to McDonald's. I see no reason to be coy – I've never liked them or anything they stand for. As someone who tries to eat a reasonably balanced diet and bemoans the creeping destruction of the NHS, I worry about the way the UK seems to be following the US down the road to junk food-fed mass obesity. As a lover of all aspects of local culture around the world, I detest walking down a street in Osaka, Krakow, Cologne or Paris, or any other fabulous city you care to name, and seeing nationally based and often historical architecture blighted by the garish red and yellow plastic monstrosity that is the average McDonald's shop front. As a union steward of some fifteen years standing I get angry at the blatant exploitation of under-qualified labour and the knock-on effect it has on rights and wages throughout industry. And in these days where trade unions are struggling with laws that almost always favour the employer, I am immediately suspicious of any company that is openly anti-union – just what are they trying to hide? And as a believer in the notion of film as art and someone who actually throws things at his TV when bad commercials come on, I absolutely bloody HATE that wretched McDonald's "I'm Lovin' it" promotional campaign, paraded across seemingly every ad break by a grim collection of corporate prostitutes from the entertainment world, who as a consequence are, as observed by the sorely missed Bill Hicks, "off the artistic A-list forever."

So I'm not coming at this from a balanced viewpoint, and if you have even half a conscience, neither should you. These corporations spend billions on advertising and PR to promote themselves, their products and their viewpoint, and even if you gathered all of the anti-corporate literature and web sites and films in one place, there would still be an enormous imbalance in favour of the multinationals. Anyone who stands against the increasingly insipid rise of these corporate monsters is OK in my book, and I thus have a warm place in my heart for the likes of French farmer Jose Bove, who in 1999 led a group of supporters in an assault on a half-built McDonald's restaurant in Millau. The action may have been a protest against American taxes on French Roquefort cheese, but their selected target was still seen as a comment on the social and economic effects of such corporate leviathans have on small businesses and communities throughout the world, and Bove was elevated to the status of a national hero. Given the notoriously litigious nature of such companies and the huge resources that they have at their beck and call (not to mention the friends they seem to have in all the right high places), such status is, I believe, fully justified. Bove was on t-shirts in France, and that fills me with hope when so many of those who should by rights be protesting against these companies are using their own buying power to go sloganeering for them. One company that seems to have been particularly successful at this technique is French Connection UK, who are able to sell their drab clobber to dunderheads simply because it is emblazoned with their witless logo FCUK, which of course looks at first glance like FUCK. Oh, how daring. As nicely pointed out in a cartoon in Private Eye, taking part in this sort of pay-to-participate corporate advertising makes you a FCUKWIT.

But I digress. McLibel is more than just an amusing film title, it was the shorthand term used to describe a genuinely extraordinary legal battle undertaken by two London Greenpeace protestors – gardener Helen Steel and postman Dave Morris – against the full might of the McDonald's legal machine, a case that the burger giant was confident would be over in a three or four weeks. McDonald's had served a libel writ on them for distributing a pamphlet that accused the corporation of, amongst other things, using advertising that exploits children, damaging the environment, contributing to heart disease and cancer, and paying their workers low wages. Now the usual way it worked was this: someone says something that the McDonald's bigwigs don't like, the company serves them a writ, and that someone immediately apologises to avoid being taken to court and sued for damages by a company with billions of dollars at its disposal. Helen and Dave were offered the same choice – apologise for what you said or we'll sue you for libel. Helen balked idea of apologising, especially as she believed that it was McDonald's that owed society at large an apology, and no doubt to the company's complete surprise, she and Dave flatly refused to play ball. The two were taken to court, McDonald's with enough highly paid legal experts to give even The Simpsons' Mr. Burns the heebie-jeebies, Helen and Dave representing themselves, despite having no legal experience whatsoever. Given these odds, it should have been a quickly arrived-at foregone conclusion. But no-one on the McDonald's legal team was prepared for the sheer determination and tenacity of the two defendants, and a trial that began on 28th June 1994 did not conclude until 19 June 1997, having clocked up a staggering 313 days in court and entered the Guinness Book of records as the longest civil case in English legal history.

The sheer willpower and strength to take on this task and see it through to the end is difficult for most of us to really imagine, especially in a time where taking a principled stand is something most people read about in history class. As a union steward I have fought my fair share of disciplinary cases and remember one particularly nasty one which involved four weeks of frantic preparation and two full days of argument and evidence and witness interrogation (most such cases last only a couple of hours). I felt physically drained at the end of it. Two days? Helen and Dave did this for three years. And they were not dealing with the company management, but legal professionals representing one of the most powerful corporations on the planet. Now these are faces that should be on t-shirts...

Site regulars (and anyone who has really been keeping an eye on the genre) will recognise the name Franny Armstrong as the director of Drowned Out, which was far and away one of the best documentaries released anywhere last year. McLibel was made before Drowned Out and the DVD release was originally scheduled for late 2004, but a further twist to story prompted a re-edit of the film to include additional footage of Helen and Dave's victory in the European Court of Human Rights, where they directly challenged the UK's libel laws. Both versions have been included in this two disk release, handily giving us the opportunity to view the story as it was told back in 1997 and how the intervening eight years have shaped Armstrong's directorial style.

McLibel – Two Worlds Collide (1997) was Franny Armstrong's first feature, and this is not some film school graduate's calling card. Armstrong freely admits she had no initial interest in being a film-maker, but was alerted to the case by her father (who does work in the industry), and with no money and no commission she got involved in documenting the ongoing case and examining the evidence that was crucial to it. In many ways this has the feel of a first film, telling its story with a relatively straightforward mixture of sit-down interview, textual information, illustrative footage, dramatised reconstructions and voice-over. There is none of the visual pizzazz of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, something that may make the film seem a little too soberly traditionalist for those who have discovered the wonders of political documentary through the recent spate of (mainly) American works, films that have connected with a younger audience in part by borrowing a few tricks from dramatic features and even music videos. In addition there is a sense of incompleteness about some elements – we never really get an understanding of why the trial took so long and do not really get to know Helen and Dave as well as we'd like to. But Armstrong's real strength, also seen to great effect in Drowned Out, is her ability to get great interviews with interesting people and then economically select just the right portions for inclusion.

In some ways Helen and Dave are, in cinematic terms at least, unexciting interviewees, being too genuinely down-to-earth to perform for the camera. But this is precisely their appeal – even emerging from the court building on the final day of the trail to an applauding crowd, they come across as two ordinary people overwhelmed at the response that their actions have provoked. And when they talk, they are always worth listening to. There are plenty of other contributors, including some real gems: the former Ronald McDonald actor who likens this corporate clown to the Third Reich's propaganda minister; corporate spy Fran Tiller (whose interview is a small coup in itself), a real surprise for anyone with set ideas of just what someone in such a job would look and sound like; the agitated parent who most eloquently expresses her annoyance at having her child's fun day hijacked by Ronald and his heavies; and Sue Dibb of the National Food Alliance, who outlines what she nicely describes as 'Pester Power', something pretty much every parent must have experienced (and possibly given into) at one point.

There is also some killer footage that has been pulled from a variety of sources that really adds weight to the anti-corporate argument, in particular the behind-the-scenes glance at life for McDonald's counter employees, crammed into a small working space and diving about frantically to deliver orders in the shortest time possible, as the words "actual speed" amusingly but pertinently appear on screen. One of the most effective (and perfectly timed) cutaways shows a huge tray of oily waste from one of the restaurants being poured into a bin, an image that has prompted disgusted groans from everyone I have shown it to. But the real coup-de-grace is supplied by Helen, who secretly recorded meetings requested by McDonald's executives late in the trial in an attempt to negotiate a settlement. Made on a small pocket tape recorder, this is the only actual recording of the two sides in discussion – it's no real surprise that Helen and Dave come across as honest and principled, while the McDonald's representatives seem arrogant and bullish. Mind you, the McDonald's boys are equally ineffective on camera – at the trial's conclusion their ill-chosen representative has the oily face of a man who has been eating all the wrong foods, a stark contrast to the healthy-looking pair being cheered at another press conference nearby.

Key extracts from the trial are reproduced as dramatic re-enactments, which brought a smile of recognition to someone who has also faked a courtroom on a zero budget by spotlighting costumed characters in a darkened room. Inevitably theatrical (the minimalist setting, the completely lack of background noise, the rehearsed performances), they are nevertheless invaluable for giving a clear sense of just how evasive some witnesses could be, as well as the very real skill with which Helen and Dave conducted their case. By having them play themselves against trained actors, you also get a flavour of what it was like for two ordinary people to go up against slick professional witnesses. The biggest surprise, though, is that these sequences were directed by none other than Ken Loach, who agreed to get involved after being contacted by the director. If you're going to have a mentor on your first film...

McLibel may lack the structural polish of Drowned Out, but like that film its real power lies in its effect as a whole – it presents a very persuasive argument that, in common with the later film, builds in strength as the story unfolds. It does more than preach to the converted – it informs, educates and inspires, and if you're not politically active then this is one of the films that should persuade you to get involved on some level. As such it makes an excellent companion piece to Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar's The Corporation and Morgan Spurlock's seductively entertaining Super Size Me, and shows that despite the rise of the oversized multinational and the power they are able to wield, resistance is still possible, and can begin with one ordinary but principled person just saying No.

The feature version, McLibel – Two People Who Wouldn't Say Sorry (2005) came about when Helen and Dave, determined as ever, took the British government to the European Court of Human Rights over the UK's libel laws, concluding the final chapter of the McLibel story and giving the film-makers the opportunity to expand the original cut to include this triumphant postscript. But this is not just a longer version of the original, it is a complete re-editt, a rare chance for the now more experienced film-makers to rework the material into what almost qualifies as a different film.

The shift in style is signaled from the opening frames, the simple title card of the original replaced by a cod-Star Wars scrolling introduction and a pacy score, followed by a snappily executed sequence outlining the traditional response to the McDonald's libel threat (which was a simple scrolling list and voice-over in the original). The graphics are snazzier, the pace is faster, and music more prominent, though in a sometimes familiar manner – sinister notes accompany talk of the activities of the corporate spies, for instance. Structurally there are also some noticeable changes – the voice-over and factual captions are gone and the story is told almost exclusively through interview and illustrative footage, with scene bridges provided by staged sequences of Helen filling in her diary. We get more information on the activities of the London Greenpeace group (responding to a gripe that Dave and Helen had with the original cut), a wider selection of interviewees – including Eric Schlosser, author of the hugely successful Fast Food Nation, whose contributions really add weight – and an expansion of key areas covered in the original. The narrative flow is definitely better on the new cut, with each scene leading naturally onto the other, as sequences like the hijacking of the play school fun day evolve seamlessly from the preceding scene, though I did miss the very vocal views of the annoyed parent from the first version. There is a minor but interesting alteration to the sequence involving extracts from the secret recordings made by Helen of their meetings, when Shelby Yastrow and Dick Starmann's names have been changed to Mr. X and Mr. Y. I have to assume this was a pre-requisite to getting the film screened on BBC4 or in cinemas, as the names remain on the original cut and on the extra features. The final chapter, being several years later, does have the feel of an extended postscript, but provides a sense of closure on the case and really emphasises the dedication and hard work of these two extraordinary individuals. It also makes for a great final scene, when they are anxiously and at times irritably waiting for an email that, when it arrives, is genuinely triumphant.

Overall the new cut definitely has the edge – it has more detail, a better narrative flow, gets us closer to Helen and Dave as people, and provides a clearer idea of just why the trial went on so long. There are nevertheless some elements I missed from of the original version – I preferred the simple and direct use of captions to deliver key information rather than the diary entry links or the (long) notebook entry for summing up the court findings, for example, but by making both cuts available in the package this is not really an issue. Both are enlightening, inspiring and impressively made documentary works that demand to to be seen, for the story they tell and the viewpoint and information they so persuasively present. If the snappier pace of the recut helps bring the film to a wider audience then more power to it, and to Franny Armstrong and Spanner Films for making it happen. The British political documentary is alive and well and living in McLibel.

sound and vision

Shot on a mixture of Betacam and mini DV and framed 4:3, the video look is appropriate to the genre and the subject, and in that respect this the transfer is pretty much bang on, with contrast, colour and sharpness all fine. Compression artefacts are at a minimum, and only really visible in less well lit interiors.

The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is essentially a mono one on the original cut, but the increase in the use of music on the feature version identifies the track as stereo. Both are very cleanly and effectively mixed, the music in particular coming across very well through my sound system.

extra features

As with the Drowned Out DVD, the small scale Spanner Films seem determined to show up the bigger distributors and studios by demonstrating just how a DVD should be presented. This is a two disk set, disk 1 containing the feature cut of the film and no extra features. They are all on disk 2 and are plentiful in number and high in quality.

The Commentary Track can be accessed either via the Extras or the Audio Options menus, and features the film's director Franny Armstrong, the McLibel defendants Helen Steel and Dave Morris, Dave's son Charlie (now 15 years old), one of the McSpotlight web designers (to confuse the opposition they have all taken the name 'Jessie') and director of the drama sequences, Ken Loach. This is a great track, a really nice mixture of personal anecdotes, technical details and background information – indeed, Dave and Helen expand on the information provided by the film to such a degree that watching the film with the commentary track on is almost a separate documentary in itself and proves an essential companion to the feature. There is some lovely stuff here, much of it supplied by the very upbeat Armstrong, who describes the film as "the most inspiring thing I've ever done" and yet still berates herself in a couple of places for things she now feels are "amateurish." It is she who reveals how they were able to legally use a McDonald's commercial without obtaining the company's permission (as well as borrowing Ken Loach, they also borrowed his lawyer) and outlines the problems encountered at the hijacked fun day, when the McDonald heavies attempted to prevent her filming with the hilarious explanation "Ronald doesn't want you to film because he doesn't want the children to know how he does his magic tricks," which works nicely a metaphor for the company as a whole. Charlie's contribution is both fun and pleasingly supportive, Ken Loach picks holes in his direction and explains his reasons for getting involved, and I instantly warmed to Jessie's cheery anti-corporate enthusiasm. But it's Helen and Dave's input that makes this so invaluable, their matter-of-factness when delivering gobsmacking details (their own summing up took 26 days!) only increasing my admiration for their dedication and spirit.

As with the one on the Drowned Out DVD, this commentary features an excellent technical aspect that should be on all multi-participant commentary tracks – every time someone speaks after even a few minutes' gap, a graphic appears on screen to identify who they are, so there is never any confusion over who we are listening to. Please, please will mainstream distributors learn from this.

The Extras menu is broken up into sectionz, each of which has its own set of contents. The first, Secrets, has eight items.

Settlement Meeting is 27 minutes of Helen's secret recording of the meeting called by McDonald's bigwigs, edited down from four hours of original tapes. This really expands on the sections used in the film and gives a real feel for how slimy these people can be, one of my favourite moments being the suggestion of a 'charitable contribution' if the two were willing to give something in return. I'll bet. A very useful and informative listen, aided throughout by very clear subtitles. The contributors here are identified by name, rather than as 'Mr. X' or Mr. Y'.

The McPress Conference (7:15) contains all of the press conference called by McDonald's following the completion of the trial. This appeared very slightly out of sync, at least on my system. Either way, for some strange reason the words 'oily bastards' kept popping into my head.

Amateur Dramatics (6:22) features extracts from the trial-run for the dramatic sequences, directed by Armstrong and featuring her friends, family and colleagues, as well as herself. There is an apologetic intro to this sequence, but given the participants' lack of acting experience they are actually pretty good. The inclusion of a couple of out-takes gives us a welcome glance at Helen looking like she's having a good time.

Interview with Spy (5:20) gives us more of the interview with corporate spy Fran Tiller.

Rejection Letter presents six rejection letters from the BBC, each giving weak reasons for not screening the original cut of the film.

The Leaflet is a reproduction of the original 1986 factsheet that started the case and the 2004 leaflet that followed it, both reproduced large, but not large enough to read.

The Campaign is a textual history of the McLibel campaign by Helen and Dave.

Commentary, with McD's, dead & alive is effectively a second commentary track, but a satirical if factually based one, in which Franny Armstrong interviews a wide variety of contributors, from the man who shaped McDonald's success, Ray Kroc, and former president of McDonald's in Japan, Den Fujita, to such past world leaders as Mikhail Gorbachev and Richard Nixon. Related quotes from all are read in a range of sometimes Python-esque voices (all the work of Rob Newman) as if being delivered by those being quoted from. I wasn't sure about this feature at first, feeling a little like an extended Rory Bremner sketch, but it grew on me steadily as it progressed, in the main for the sheer volume of sometimes outrageous claims being made by some of the corporate turnips whose words we get to hear. As with the main commentary track, all of the, er, 'participants' are identified graphically on-screen when they speak.

The second section consists of eight Interviews, a mixture of extended versions of ones that appear in the film and previously unseen material and all fascinating, illustrating further Armstrong's talent for getting fine interviews and asking the right questions. The interviewees are Eric Schlosser (8:42 and terrific), author of The McDonaldisation of Society George Ritzer (5:24 and also very good), Fran Tiller (5:20 – the same interview that appears under the Secrets section), physicist and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva (3:49 – not in the film and absolutely essential viewing), Mike Mansfield QC (5:27 – great stuff), Keir Starmer QC, the man who selflessly donated his services to Helen and Dave for free (7:23), cattle rancher Howard Lyman (5:16) and ex Ronald McDonald actor Geoffrey Giuliano (4:34 – "I never had to eat the food – thank God.").

The third section, Quiz, like the one on the Drowned Out disk, is a wonderfully barbed political dig that also delivers sometimes alarming facts about the corporation and its products. Once again, it's the incorrect answers that provide the humour – a question about why the McDonald's UK Vice-President thought it was environmentally friendly to dump burger packaging in landfill sites offers as one possible answer, "So little fluffy bunny rabbits can use the cartons for nest building."

There are 6 Deleted Scenes of varying but in one case substantial length and absolutely worth checking out. Starsbourg (13:08) shows Franny, Helen and Dave at a London screening of the film answering audience questions, commenting on Super Size Me, traveling to Strasbourg and preparing for the trial. An essential addition, in part for the political aspects but mostly for getting us even closer to Helen and Dave. Particularly interesting is when the pair grab Franny's camera and turn it on her, but genuinely alarming is Helen's stress-induced skin reaction that allows her to write words on her arm merely by lightly scratching it. Charlie (4:13) focuses on Dave's son Charlie, who at 15 demonstrates a keen political awareness and has already discovered the effectiveness of collective action. Salads (1:38) has Dave and Helen actually entering a McDonald's store to look at McDonald's new 'healthy' menus. Evidence Finishes (1:57) sees the pair emerge to await the verdict and introduces us to Helen's mum and dad. Police and McD's (3:13) looks at the protest movement against McDonald's and the relation between them and the British police, who passed information about the McLibel pair on to the corporation. Finally Sewage (1:01) discusses a particularly nasty hygiene problem at one of the company's restaurants.

Production features a Making Of – Newspaper Article, a textual reproduction of an article written by Franny Armstrong and published in June 1998 in The Guardian on the problems of getting McLibel screened on British TV.

Making Of – Interview with Director (20:39) is a relaxed conversation with the director on both McLibel and Drowned Out and includes a brief tour of her working environment/home. This interview also appears on the Drowned Out DVD.

The main commentary track can also be accessed here.

Credits is so much more than the usual quick textual listing of the work of the main participants. Here we get listings and amusing anecdotal information on those connected with the film, the DVD, the music, the trial and Spanner Films, plus links to any other relevant extras on the DVD. It's worth a look through, though I should point out that the very helpful Lizzie Gillett has a blank page on the DVD section! Maybe it's my player...

Filmography is a brief filmography of the work of Spanner Films, with a link to the Drowned Out trailer.

Quotes has a number of positive press quotes about the film, though some are very brief indeed ("Powerful." – Time Out). The viewer quote on page 2 is more substantial.

The sixth section, Trailers, has trailers for McLibel, Drowned Out, Super Size Me and The Corporation, the opening 98 seconds of the upcoming Baked Alaska and short promotional videos for the McSpotlight and oneworld.tv.

Finally we have Photos (1:32), a short montage of photographs taken during the campaign and set to music.

summary

The original version of McLibel was a solidly made and fascinating documentary on a case that did not receive the press attention it should have, given its importance and the David and Goliath imbalance of the two sides. The new feature version expands on the original, ups the pace, improves the narrative flow, and provides a rousing conclusion to this remarkable story. To have both versions in one set is welcome, but every one of the plentiful and high quality extra features supplies us with new information, and the package as a whole is a wonderfully comprehensive and detailed overview of one of the most important cases to be tried the UK courts in modern times. It really is an excellent DVD that puts many big studio releases to shame, and should be snapped up by anyone with even a passing concern about the relentless rise of the multi-national corporation. Director Franny Armstrong, who after just two features is looking increasingly like modern British political documentary's voice of conscience and commitment, says on the commentary track that making McLibel was the most inspiring thing she has ever done. It's no coincidence that this story of two ordinary people, who took on one of the most powerful corporations in the world and effectively won, is one of the most inspiring things I have seen in some considerable time. And remember, this was not a personal fight between McDonalds and two anti-corporate protesters – Helen Steel and Dave Morris were fighting for their right, for your right, to exercise free speech. So come on, get political, get involved, and get this DVD.

The disk can be bought directly from Spanner Films via their web site for £20, or as a double pack with Drowned Out for £30.

You can read more about the case by visiting the McSpotlight site, which is loaded with information on the case and that corporation.

McLibel

UK 1997/2005
85 mins
director
Franny Armstrong
starring
Helen Steel
Dave Morris

DVD details
region 0
video
4:3 OAR
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles .
English
extras
Director and participants' commentary
McD's dead & alive commentary
Secret recordings
Press conference
Rehearsal footage
Interviews
Leaflets
Rejection letters
Quiz
Deleted scenes
Newspaper article
Interview with director
Credits
Filmography
Trailers
Photos
distributor
Arrow Films
release date
Out now
review posted
6 May 2005

Related articles
Drowned Out DVD review
A Spanner in the Works – an interview with director Franny Armstrong

See all of Slarek's reviews