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Privatization's Victims

Nancy Isenson interviewed Florian Opitz
May 22, 2007

DW-WORLD.DE spoke to documentary filmmaker Florian Opitz about "The Big Sellout," his recently released movie about privatization's victims and the problems of working with privatization's proponents.

The film looks at Cochabamba, Bolivia's fight to reverse privatization of its waterImage: 2007 Majestic Film Verleih GmbH

Director Florian Opitz spent four and half years and only 300,000 euros ($405,000) making "The Big Sellout," which opened in movie theaters across Germany on Thursday. The film looks at the effect privatizing state-owned services has on individuals.

In the Philippines, Minda struggles daily to pay for dialysis for her son since health care was privatized; South Africa's Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee spends its days illegally reconnecting community members' electricity since the utility's privatization; and train driver Simon laments about the dire condition of Britain's railways since British Rail was privatized.

DW-WORLD.DE: What inspired you to make a film on the subject of privatization?

Florian Opitz: In 2002 and 2003 there was a small discussion of NGOs about privatization, because the WTO was planning its GATT agreement, which was supposed to force states to privatize and liberalize their public services. I wondered why in the media I couldn't find any discussion of privatization. In the part of the newspapers that deals with economics I only read the normal stuff: that privatization brings efficiency, it makes services cheaper and there's more competition, but I knew of a lot of cases where that was not the case.

I had access to a big media archive at German public TV and I couldn't find any case studies on what was the effect of privatization for normal people on the ground. Then I approached unions and universities and organizations, the United Nations, the World Bank, and other institutions about case studies on the effect of privatization. Even though in 2003 this was a very important phenomenon going on all over the world, there was no systematic study of the outcome of privatizations.

The film very much gave the "victims" of privatization the stage and came across as a black-and-white view of privatization. Why did you opt for a simplistic account instead of also offering the protagonists of privatization the chance to tell their side of the story and allow the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions?

That was exactly what we wanted to do from the beginning. But we had a very, very hard time finding and getting interviews with people who pushed privatization. For four-and-a-half years, we approached the IMF, the World Bank and other institutions and the companies who are behind the privatization in the cases we depicted. Apart from this one interview with the guy from the World Bank (editor's note: economist Shantayanan Devarajan), which was also very difficult, all interviews were either not given in the first place or got cancelled.

I wanted to have the same amount of interviews with the people who are pushing privatization. For example, we had four interviews (arranged) with World Bank people and one interview with the IMF. We flew to Washington, DC, and the day before the interview I got a call from press officer of the World Bank, who said, "There are some problems. They researched you. My colleague at the IMF called me and they regard you as a dangerous person." I wondered, "Why am I a dangerous person? I'm a journalist in Germany working for public TV. There's nothing in my files. What makes me a dangerous person?"

Then she said, "They googled you." So I googled myself, and I saw that there's a Web site from WDR, German television, which depicted a film of mine that had loosely to do with the globalization critics from attac, which I made a portrait of -- a very critical portrait. Nevertheless, it was enough to make me a "dangerous person." So the IMF didn't want to talk to us; the World Bank cancelled three of the four interviews and cancelled most of the time we had there to shoot. After four and a half years of dealing with these people, I really think they have something to hide.

The film comes across as a call to action, yet you don't suggest ways people can take action. Was that intentional?

The film doesn't want to answer all questions and it's not able to answer all the questions dealing with globalization and privatization. I think how to become active and how to inform yourself is different in every different occasion, every different country. What I want to say with the film is that privatization -- and neo-liberalism -- is only one of a lot of different positions in economics.

Film Der große Ausverkauf
Three serious UK train accidents resulted from privatization, the film saysImage: 2007 Majestic Film Verleih GmbH
Der große Ausverkauf
Opitz (left) with Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, who also appears in the film

On the scale of the different positions, it's a very extreme position. It doesn't reflect the outcome of modern economic science. It's important that we accept that this neo-liberal thing, privatization, which is sold as the outcome of the political and economic science, is not something like a natural law or even the outcome of modern economic science. Modern economic science has learned a lot more about the failure of markets and the necessity of regulation by the public hand.

That's what people have to realize. From there we can start to discuss what kind of society, what kind of public services or basic services we want to have.

Clearly the film was released in Germany to start its run ahead of the G8 summit in June and the German Web site also calls on people to take part in the anti-G8 protests. Will you be there?

I'm not sure. ... There were plans to show the film there.

I think these protests are important, so that civil society, or at least parts of it, can show that they are not content with the politics that are driven by the G8, and the World Bank and the IMF are institutions that are mainly dominated by the G8 countries. I think we have to push for a better outcome for the poor people in the world.

In a lot of countries where we were, the G8, the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank are not abstract things at all. While in Germany five or 10 percent, or even less, know what the IMF and the World Bank do, in the Philippines and South Africa, every market woman knows what these institutions are doing and what their effect is on their life and what the effect of the G8 countries is on their life.

Der große Ausverkauf
Privatization of health services has made it hard for poor Filipinos to get care
Der große Ausverkauf
Soweto's residents turn to illegal electricians to have their power put back on