A Film by Florian Opitz: The Big Sell Out

An Important New Documentary Exposes theDevastating Effects of Unregualted Privatisation

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | September 2007

Oscar Olivera, a human rights and environmental activist in Bolivia, in an interview for the film (Photo: Der Grosse Ausverkauf)

The Big Sellout (Der Grosse Ausverkauf) can be hard to watch – but we all need to: It’s too real, and too heartbreaking, to dismiss. An evocative and compelling political documentary by independent German filmmaker Florian Opitz, Der Grosse Ausverkauf exposes the devastating effects that privatisation has on lives and communities across the world.

The film, mostly in English and Spanish with German subtitles, was released in Germany in May in time for the G8 Summit. So it is particularly fascinating to meet and hear Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, voice harsh criticisms of the role and neo-liberal policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the struggling economies they were meant to serve.  Interviewed in the back of a taxi between appointments, Stiglitz said:

"I once compared certain aspects of economic policy to the conduct of modern warfare," Stiglitz says in the film. "In modern wars you try to dehumanize the process, to put feelings of empathy aside. You throw bombs from 15,000 meters but you don’t see where they land, you don’t see the damage. It’s almost like a computer game. You talk about "body counts" – that dehumanizes the process. It’s exactly the same with the economy: people talk about statistics and not about the people behind the statistics."

In the course of the film, we meet a British engine driver in the disintegrating British rail system, a Philippine mother struggling to find health care for a critically ill child, a South African activist fighting a confiscatory electric power monopoly, and the citizens of a Bolivian city whose water supply has been metered and put up for sale.

These interviews that provide the film’s narrative are specific, evidenced and deeply troubling, shining a glaring light on the faceless brutality of privatisation on the lives of ordinary people, lives on four different continents, and many, but not all, among the world’s poorest and most defenceless. Opitz insists that we identify with a global problem that in the end, if it hasn’t already, affects us all.

The interwoven story lines of the British engine driver, the Philippine mother, the South African activist and the Bolivian citizens of Cochabamba couldn’t be more different from the insensitivity of institutions responsible. The International Monetary Fund, unavailable to comment, submitted instead a computer-animated cartoon explaining their policy of privatisation as a condition for loans to developing countries. It was a ridiculous and revealing choice; this cartoon only succeeds in trivialising its subject and appearing automated, sinister and conspiratorial – and eloquently revealing the indifference of the institution. The focus on statistics serves effectively to obscure what privatisation really means, Stiglitz comments, and unmask the dogma that drives the institution and those who profit by it.

The individual cases are fascinating.

For Simon Weller, the British train driver, neo-liberalism is also an ideology based on a misguided notion that free markets lead to more efficiency. British Rail was privatised in the late 1990s and Weller explains how the former state enterprise and its employees were divided up into approximately 150 companies, one company owing the tracks and signalling, but bringing no major investment to the infrastructure or service. His conclusion is that the terrible state of British railways – once the best in the world and the pride of the nation – is the best proof that privatisation’s ability to deliver efficiency is a myth. Profit comes at the expense of investment in maintenance and staff, resulting in a massive decline in service and security for passengers. Broken up into 100 different companies, the British rail network became a ‘logistical nightmare,’ making it next to impossible to buy a ticket and travel across the country by train.

At the end of the 1980s the Philippine state began to sell off the nationalised health system, creating a two-tiered system of poorly equipped state-run hospitals for the general population and modern private hospitals for the wealthy. As employment conditions deteriorated, many trained personnel emigrated, closing departments or even whole hospitals. In the midst of all this, Minda Lorando is struggling to find money to pay for the dialysis her son needs twice a week. She has had to sell her house and use all her savings and now lives with her children and grandchildren in a slum. She is resourceful and determined and angrily rejects the advice of a woman at the social service department who has told her to accept that her son will die.

Electricity and water were privatised under the Nelson Mandela government in South Africa. The new owner ESKOM increased prices and many households in Soweto, Johannesburg’s largest and poorest district experience difficulties in paying their bills. One woman who worked for more than 20 years in a cafeteria had saved up to buy her own house. She now lives on a pension, a third of which goes to pay her electricity bills. Within a month of filming, ESKOM cuts off 20,000 homes. Bongani Lubisi is an activist on the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and the APF (Anti-Privatisation Forum). He works to reattach houses illegally to the electricity mains, while ESKOM, with the help of the state, relentlessly pursues the activists. He fears for his life, but continues undaunted. At the end of the film, we learn that he has died under mysterious circumstances.

The story of the Bolivian municipality of Cochabamba ends more happily. Having sold off its water services in 1999 to the US Corporation Bechtel, price increases followed and a contract between the municipality and Bechtel forbade people from taking water from brooks, rivers and lakes. The rules made even catching rain water illegal. However a popular uprising in 2000 that came to be known as the first ‘water war,’ led by machinist Oscar Olivera, pressured the government to withdraw from the contract. Olivera’s narrative of successful citizen action is very powerful and one of the few heartening moments in the film.

Although The Big Sellout looks at the failures of privatization it also movingly shows the power and resilience of people to demand something better for themselves. This beautifully crafted documentary captures the daily lives and resilient spirit of its protagonists and the musical backdrop by the German experimental composer Pluramon, in a very good fit, capturing a restless, haunting mood, a wake-up call for the second environmental crisis we are bringing on ourselves. And this one’s getting colder.

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