What's Up, Doc?

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Director Robert Greenwald has produced more than 50 TV movies and a handful of feature films during his 30-year showbiz career. But he's best known now as the rabble-rouser behind politically charged attacks on Rupert Murdoch's Fox News (Outfoxed), big-box department stores (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price) and now the mercenary and munitions companies getting rich off of U.S. Defense Department contracts. Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers will open the same innovative way Greenwald's previous documentaries have screened — in a select few theaters starting September 8th, a DVD release mid-month, and later thousands of grass-roots "house parties" where the documentary video is played for invited friends and neighbors. TIME's Jeffrey Ressner spoke with Greenwald as two of his films — the one he directed, another he produced — appear on the scene.

TIME: What kind of reactions have you gotten from your recent documentaries?

Greenwald: There's been a huge change in Wal-Mart's public relations since my film and its campaign. With our alternative distribution, we had over 7,000 screenings in one week alone where people not only saw the film but were asked to take action: write a letter, make a phone call, contact a politician about pending legislation or join an activist group. With the Fox documentary, the goal wasn't to change Rupert Murdoch into a flaming left-winger: that's not going to happen. We wanted to provide evidence for the media, so when they analyzed and wrote about Fox News they could show it's not a news organization like most others.

What do you hope to achieve with Iraq for Sale? Do you really think you can have any impact on what's going on with the war?

Well, the mercenaries and profiteers all rely on one primary customer: the U.S. government. To the degree we can get people outraged — no matter what their political party or view on the war itself — it can put pressure on officials to get this to stop. It's very clear what needs to be done — there needs to be legislation to stop this obscenity.

How are you maturing as a documentarian?

Making traditional narrative films gave me a strong training ground in telling stories. With each of these documentaries, I've tried to use those storytelling skills more and more — the personal side, the human stories. With Iraq For Sale, the balance is one in which you're emotionally connected to the people but you're also surrounded by facts and experts so you understand the problem better.

You've taken as many hits as you've dished out. Do you worry about reprisals from your subjects?

Democracy is not a spectator sport. The fact that I'm able to participate in some small way in debates and policies that affect my country overrides any smears and name-calling that comes with the job. One critic called me "short," which really bothered me — I'm 5'5". The attacks from Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and the New York Post, the way I was labeled a "Nazi propagandist" — that all comes with the territory. Being called names by people who make their career through name-calling is to be expected. It would be na´ve of me to think otherwise. Whatever the attacks, they're balanced out by the thousands of positive emails I get, and the responses from Taiwan to Texas by people who want to host screenings of my films.

Your distribution method seems unique. Have you gotten calls from Hollywood types to help them market their own films?

People are accepting that this is an activism tool that can help create change. It's not a distribution system that maximizes profit, so it wouldn't work for Hollywood. Think about it: every house party we hold requires just one person to buy a DVD because we're not charging anyone to watch the film at people's homes. Hollywood is not running to embrace a model for social change. I'm not sure anybody's found a way to monetize it yet.

You're also producing political documentaries, including Nurses vs. Arnold, which covers the rancorous conflict between the California Nurses' Association and Governor Schwarzenegger. Will you be doing more producing of this type?

I've always done both. We've also created a company called Brave New Theaters, which allows any activist to use our software for arranging house parties to promote their own films. People who want to do this now don't have to reinvent the wheel. I'd like to take the mystery out of the whole process and spread the word about that.