Going Public on Privatization: Interview with THE BIG SELLOUT’s Florian Opitz


‘The Big Sellout’

Florian Opitz’ The Big Sellout is one of the first films to take a vivid analysis at the effects of privatization all around the world. Opitz’ film examines the effects of worldwide privatization on basic public services, such as water supply, electricity, public transportation, and even public health care. In South America, Asia, Africa, but also in Europe and the United States, Opitz meets people for whom the promises of the new economic order are nothing more than hollow phrases.

Speaking to Erik Kirschbaum for Reuters, Opitz expressed his motivation for making the film:

“What really bothered me before starting this was that everyone said you can’t do anything about the spread of privatisation even though it affects so many people in such a fundamental way. If people are informed about the potential impact of privatisation on healthcare, railways, power suppliers and still want it, that’s their choice. But they’re usually left in the dark. My aim was to show privatisation’s impact on people.”

Deutsche Welle’s Nancy Isenson interviewed Opitz upon the film’s wide release in Germany in 2007.

Florian Opitz, director of The Big Sellout

Florian Opitz, director of The Big Sellout

Q: What inspired you to make a film on the subject of privatization?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Watch The Big Sellout.

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