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Pass the popcorn; politics now showing

After pressure from a big chemical company, the refusal by Fox News in Tampa to run its own investigative reporters' story on America's hormone-tainted milk supply raised questions of big media catering to a corporate advertiser.

Just before getting pink slips, Orlando area technology workers Mike Emmons and Pat Fluno were forced to train their low-wage replacements from India. Their saga is part of an accelerating trend of U.S. job outsourcing to cheaper nations.

These Florida tales are among the many troubling business scenes captured in two provocative independent films, The Corporation and American Jobs. They are just a fraction of an unprecedented number of independent films hitting the screens this election year that are sharply critical of the increasingly dominant "profits first, people second" philosophy of big business and of a federal government viewed as more and more beholden to Corporate America.

"There's never been an election in which political documentaries played a significant role _ until now," says the Sept. 13 issue of Newsweek.

Why such a burst of edgy films now about business and politics?

"People are starting to realize that there is something dysfunctional in the world, and it may have a lot to do with the corporation as a governing institution," suggests Joel Bakan, a former Rhodes scholar and law professor at the University of British Columbia, who wrote the script for The Corporation.

Director Greg Spotts, whose American Jobs draws on the voice of outsourced workers in 19 cities, suggests that left on its own, the trend of relocating U.S. jobs overseas will seriously erode the country's middle class and drive more people to work merely to subsist.

Bakan and Spotts may be on to something deeper than the usual rhetoric of the antibusiness or antiglobalization movements. Many Americans are struggling with economic insecurity. They sense a loss of financial control over their lives as blue-collar and, increasingly, white-collar jobs are sent overseas or fall prey to corporate layoffs and productivity gains.

A central theme in The Corporation is that profit-driven corporations are by nature antisocial and harmful to communities. More to the point, the film warns that corporations have grown too large and powerful to be controlled by governments. Governments, the film argues, have become tools of corporations.

The same concern echoes in American Jobs. In the film, Orlando systems analyst Fluno, like co-worker Emmons, loses her job at Siemens but must train her low-wage replacement from India. Her frustrated conclusion: "What's good for the company is no longer what's good for the country."

It's no coincidence so many films are coming out amid the most controversial presidential campaign since at least 1972. Directly or indirectly, many recent films take the Bush administration to task for catering to Big Business and the wealthy.

Consider Super Size Me, the film that lampoons a greedy McDonald's for promoting high-fat fast food in prodigious portions (a policy McDonald's has discontinued) to the chronically obese U.S. population. Or Outfoxed, by prolific anti-Bush filmmaker Robert Greenwald, which attacks Rupert Murdoch's "fair and balanced" Fox News as a mouthpiece of the conservative right and sold more than 100,000 DVDs this summer. Or similarly themed Orwell Rolls in His Grave about corporate control of our media. Or The Yes Men, a spoof about anticorporate activists impersonating members of the World Trade Organization.

There are many other films, including the fictional Silver City (a grammatically challenged, Christian politician sounding a lot like George W. Bush runs for governor) and the documentary The Control Room (about Al Jazeera's coverage of the Iraq war). While not all of the new indy films come with liberal spin, the vast majority clearly clash with the policies _ or indifference _ of the Bush administration.

"The economic visions of (George W.) Bush and (Democratic candidate John) Kerry are polar opposites," says Bakan of The Corporation. The Bush administration promotes more deregulation and privatization. Kerry talks about creating more protections for jobs and the environment.

The producers of American Jobs are hustling to line up screenings in every city that appears in the film. Spotts, 36, a former MTV producer and first-time filmmaker, says the film is nonpartisan. But he wants to be sure as many voters as possible better understand why America is losing jobs overseas _ before they cast their ballots.

There are other reasons for the groundswell of indy films. Independent filmmakers armed with affordable digital cameras have been inspired by the works of controversial director Michael Moore. His polarizing Fahrenheit 9/11 is the most successful documentary in history, with more than $118-million in U.S. box office receipts. Further, films that criticized the United States _ a taboo theme ever since the terrorist attacks in 2001 _ are once again considered an acceptable genre.

To many of these filmmakers, Bush's nickname, the "CEO president," is not a compliment but an embarrassment. They see a stake in the outcome of the Nov. 2 elections.

"Depending on who wins, there will be a substantial impact on how corporations are to be governed," Bakan says. "Not just in the U.S. but, I think, internationally."

In one segment of The Corporation, former Tampa investigative TV reporters Steve Wilson and Jane Akre tell their side of how their employer, Fox News WTVT-13, knuckled under to legal pressure by Monsanto Co. and refused to run a story about the use of the company's bovine growth hormone showing up in the U.S. milk supply. Wilson and Akre, a husband-and-wife team, were later fired and are in a lengthy legal battle with Fox.

Akre, interviewed Friday by phone from Jacksonville, said she was not sure how director Mark Achbar of The Corporation learned about their struggle with Fox. But she's glad he did.

"The fact that this is a political year is galvanizing," Akre says. "People do not like governments run by corporations."

Akre currently is working on independent projects, while Wilson is chief investigative reporter for WXYZ-TV news in Detroit.

In addition to Orlando tech workers, American Jobs focuses on textile workers in Kannapolis, N.C., Boeing engineers in Seattle, garment workers in Los Angeles and the maquillas (assembly factories) lined up along the Texas border with Mexico. In each location, jobs were lost when workers could be found to do the same work overseas for less.

The film is especially critical of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, pushed into law amid promises of economic prosperity during the Clinton administration. The film cites Economic Policy Institute data showing 879,000 U.S. jobs were lost from 1993 to 2002 because of the free-trade rules.

Former Rep. David Bonior, a Michigan Democrat, also appears in the film almost nonchalantly describing the extraordinary influence corporations have on U.S. government policies.

"The corporations are running our national governments, certainly in this country," Bonior says.

One tech worker featured in the film who lost her job to cheap overseas labor is Myra Bronstein, a college-educated electronics engineer who handled software testing for a Seattle-area company.

In the film, she describes the scene of her co-workers eyeballing their foreign replacements (brought in for training) across a table as "the sock-hop from hell."

This is the same woman I met and interviewed last month on the streets of New York City during a silent "pink slip" protest by thousands of people during the Republican National Convention. She told me whatever work is available back home pays far less than the $75,600 (plus bonus and stock options) she had earned at her tech company.

Notably, Bronstein and axed Siemens employee Fluno voiced a similar worry bordering on a conspiracy theory: The threat of outsourcing will continue to depress U.S. wages. That's good for companies but bad for workers.

Perhaps the strongest scene in the film takes place in Colorado, where director Spotts depicts volunteers trying to get an initiative on the ballot this fall to ban the state from using low-wage overseas labor in state contracts. As it turned out, after the film was completed, the initiative failed to get the 68,000 valid signatures to qualify.

But one of the proposition's leaders, Richard Armstrong, eloquently spells out the film's bottom line on outsourcing.

"The problem is the people you displace are your consumers," he says. "You cannot love the American consumer and hate the American workers at the same time."

Most of these films are meant to be watched on DVD at home. Many have limited distribution in theaters. The Corporation, for instance, debuts in the Tampa Bay area on Oct. 22 at the Tampa Theatre. American Jobs is sold for $11.95 (americanjobsfilm.com) as a direct-to-DVD documentary.

To be sure, Bush backers are not without their own small but dedicated cadre of conservative filmmakers.

Last weekend, the American Film Renaissance Festival in Dallas showed various pro-Bush and anti-Michael Moore documentaries ranging from George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, produced by Grizzly Adams Productions (www.grizzlyadams.tv), about the president's personal practice of Christianity, to filmmaker Michael Wilson's Michael Moore Hates America.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at (727) 893-8405 or trigauxsptimes.com.

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