A powerful new documentary examining the effects of privatization has emerged from Germany. THE BIG SELLOUT weaves a story of mismanagement, neocolonialism, suffering and resistance from four separate corners of the globe. In the film we meet four central characters, beginning with Simon, a British train driver. Simon clearly articulates the consequences of the systematic dismantling of what was once Europe’s best public transportation system. Since Thatcher privatized the rail systems, wages have dropped, employment has dropped, service has denigrated, and no one wants to take responsibility for the rail lines (until recently, the government has stepped in and re-nationalized that one aspect sheerly out of safety concerns and a massive PR disaster after several deaths from rail collisions). Simon is a force for public service and organized labour, and brings the sometimes philosophically lofty discussions of “common good” down to earth.
We meet Miranda, a Phillipine mother whose 16 year old son is nearing death waiting for dialysis, and better yet, a kidney transplant, in the privatized healthcare system that has turned its back on the shanty towns of the poorest parts of Manila. We follow Miranda as she makes difficult decisions – choosing one day to buy one pound of rice to feed her children and grandchildren rather than buying her sick son his daily medicine. As she grapples with the decision her family suffers a blackout, due to the fact that many make-shift houses are illegally running electricity from one junction (they cannot afford to pay the high electricity bills – also privatized). We also meet a Manila nurse, Delfin, who describes the real costs of a private healthcare system while a family member of a very sick patient is forced to pump oxygen manually into the man’s lungs, as there is no money to buy needed equipment.
We also meet Rosa and Oscar in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the story of Bechtel’s take over of the public water resources has become familiar to activists around the globe. Indeed, it would have been nice to see a less-familiar story about privatization mixed in the works here, but I am guessing that the filmmakers wanted to include a story that communicates success and optimism, as many of the others certainly convey the opposite.
The most powerful and tragic story to emerge from this film is the story of Bongani in Soweto, South Africa. Bongani, along with other activists in the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, have been busy since South Africa’s electric provider was privatized. When ESKOM workers go to poor neighbourhoods an cut families wires who cannot afford to pay the escalating bills, Bongani and crew shortly follow, reconnecting up the wires and turning the lights back on. They call it “Operation Kanyesa,” a Zulu word for “lights on.” Bongani is passionate, dedicated, and tireless in his pursuit of fairness, justice and equality, and at one moment, leads a group of citizens in singing and chanting “No to capitalism, no to privatization.” These are not the “anarchist radicals” that the North American mainstream media continues to misrepresent: these scenes in fact connect with activists all over the world struggling for similar goals and should in fact connect with citizens globally, who may be inspired to see that people facing much more drastic structural obstacles are fighting against the same neoliberal forces.
Which brings to mind the last character, Joseph Stiglitz, the former chief economist for the World Bank. Interspersed throughout the film are slices of Stiglitz in the back seat of a cab on a dark rainy night in some urban center, somewhere. His thoughts and reflections on the problems of privatization and neoliberalism are jolting, if only because they at times sound progressive from someone whose career has inflicted its share of damage on the global south. But perhaps that is all behind him now, and he really does believe that it’s time for the invisible hand to be made visible.
THE BIG SELLOUT is a deeply emotional, powerful and disturbing documentary about the effects of neoliberal policy on the global south. The film interrogates spaces in the poorer parts of the planet and uncovers disasters and tragedies that have been caused by preventable disease: economic imperialism. By now, most know the familiar story that the World Bank, WTO and IMF are imposing profit-hungry policies on poor countries so that the North can continue along with our privileged consumptive culture. This film goes a step further, and instead of focusing on the talking heads of academics, policy wonks and CEOs, delivers testimonials from those on the ground toiling under the oppressive economic thumb of these neoliberal institutions. But more importantly, the film also brings us down from the debates to the ground, where real work is being done, where policy is being rejected, and where resistance is a diaspora of passionate citizens the world over.
Visit the film’s website.