McLibel -- "the story of two people who wouldn't say McSorry" -- may by the first film in history whose most dramatic moment hinges on a file download. In a cramped office, the documentary's subjects fuss over a computer, waiting for a critical e-mail from the European Court of Human Rights. It doesn't come! Through a phone call, they learn of technical difficulties on the other end. They wait longer. And then the e-mail arrives -- but it's large, and the download plods. When will it finish? What will it say? The moment is truly, hilariously dramatic.
Directed by novice Franny Armstrong and shot over 10 years, McLibel recounts the story of two brave and tenacious English citizens who wouldn't submit to an attempted violation of their free speech by fast-food giant McDonald's. Filmed on a shoestring budget and funded with the aid of volunteers, donations, and the filmmaker's father, McLibel is not an innovative or even an artful documentary. But it is a riveting one, with a subject that couldn't be more relevant: What can the individual do in the face of a multinational corporation that wreaks havoc on people, animals, and the environment?
In the 1980s, friends Helen Steel and Dave Morris became active in London Greenpeace, a nonprofit dedicated to progressive issues. In 1986, the group produced a leaflet titled "What's Wrong With McDonald's?," a matter-of-fact document asserting that McDonald's promotes unhealthy food, pollutes the environment, exploits workers, markets aggressively to children, and commits cruelty to animals. With other members of their group, Steel and Morris distributed the leaflets outside McDonald's restaurants in London. McDonald's fought back. Citing English libel laws, the corporation demanded that five members of London Greenpeace apologize and retract the statements on the leaflet or go to court. Major news organizations in England had faced exactly the same choice, and, well aware of the legal costs that would be incurred (and the extreme unlikelihood of victory), all had caved. Steel and Morris, two penniless activists with neither legal experience nor representation, did not.
The result was the longest court case in English history. Over three years, McDonald's and the pair who became known as the McLibel 2 battled it out before a judge -- not a jury, since McDonald's was granted its initial request to proceed without one. (Apparently, the issues were too complex for the average person to understand.) With no knowledge of legal procedure, Steel and Morris underwent intense, unpaid, on-the-job training, educating themselves about the issues of the case while arguing it against some of the most highly paid lawyers in the world. The pair received help from a principled barrister named Keir Starmer, who donated his time; eventually an organization of volunteers grew up around the effort. But day after day, year after year, it was the McLibel 2 who fought the case full time, with a grand total of approximately $50,000, spent mostly on airfare for witnesses -- as opposed to the roughly $19 million spent by their opponent.
McLibel traces the events of this trial, in which the McLibel 2 fought for acquittal of libel. Then it covers a later trial in which Steel and Morris took on the English libel laws themselves, challenging them at the European Court of Human Rights. This results in two stories and two climaxes. On a practical level, it's great to know the final outcome, including just how far the case ultimately reached. The second segment also contains the film's most dramatic moment, in which Steel and Morris await the e-mail message that will reveal the court's verdict. (Whatever else the European Court of Human Rights has mastered, it isn't drama.) But on an artistic level, following the first story for an hour and then tacking on the second story for another 20 minutes or so doesn't work.
Then there are the dramatizations, directed by Ken Loach, which re-enact some of the more important moments of the first case. Frankly, they fail, detracting from the drama instead of enhancing it. Without a real set, the judge and the barristers look silly; a better choice might have been to display the transcripts on-screen and have an actor read them.
Whatever the artistic failings of the film, the heroics of its subjects are reason enough to watch. At the bitter end of the McLibel trial, when Steel and Morris had presented all of their evidence, they still had to construct a closing argument, culling from 40,000 pages of evidence and background materials they'd amassed over the course of the trial. And they did it. They fought through exhaustion and poverty in pursuit of justice. "This is about the public's right to know what the most powerful organizations in the world -- which are multinational corporations -- are really doing," Morris says. And now we do.
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