Movie Review: McLibel

By Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D
Movie Magazine International
"McLibel" is the David and Goliath story of how two British activists refused to back down when McDonald’s used every trick in the book to try to intimidate them into submission. It focuses on Helen Steel and David Morris who belonged to a non-profit group that produced a leaflet called "What’s Wrong With McDonald’s? Everything They Don’t Want You To Know," which attacked the corporation's business practices. McDonald’s actually sent spies to the activist organization meetings to obtain personal information about the members. McDonald’s sued five of the members for the leaflet. They said the activists either had to retract their allegations or go to court. Three of the activists reluctantly backed down. Several network news anchors are shown apologizing for mentioning the leaflet on the air!

But steadfast in their convictions that the fliers are truthful, Steel and Morris slogged on, enduring over ten years of court appearances - the longest trial in British history. They initially represented themselves legally until a volunteer attorney came forward, while McDonald’s spent an estimated $20 million in legal fees and flying in company executives, high paid experts, and board members for the witness stand. Steel and Morris work themselves into exhaustion while compromising the other parts of their lives to stand their ground against the multinational corporation. Steel took a job at a bar a few nights a week to support herself and get a break from the pressure of the case. Morris is raising his son alone, and finds himself having to neglect his son to attend to the case.

This is a story of tenacity. We see the "McLibel 2," as they’re called, living their simple quiet lives; Steel works in her small organic garden, Morris has a small apartment with mattresses on the floor for himself and his son. But it is their admirable convictions and their determination that is the story. Steel says, "It just really stuck in my throat to apologize to McDonald’s. I thought it was them who should be apologizing to society for the damage they do." "McLibel" goes through the points of the pamphlet and the evidence Steel and Morris used to support its truthfulness. The author of "Fast Food Nation," Eric Schlosser is interviewed, as well as other experts.

The director’s path to this project is a parallel David and Goliath story of tenacity. Franny Armstrong knew from the age of 4 that she would be a rock drummer. At age 23, and a drummer, she heard that McDonald’s was suing a postman and a gardener for libel. She picked up her father’s video equipment and asked the McLibel defendants if she could make a documentary about the trial. But eight production companies were already squabbling over the prized story. Armstrong says, "I was too late and went back to my drums and day job." A while later she received a call from David Morris who told her that the other companies dropped out. Then he asked a question that Armstrong says changed her life: "Why does not having any money stop you from making a film?" Armstrong has also completed another documentary, "Drowned Out" recounting the fight against the Narmada Dam in India.

In McLibel Fanny Armstrong brings a deep understanding for the issues, a sensitivity to her subjects, a sense of humor and irony, and artistic sensibilities. She must have a lot of energy and endurance to have finished this marathon with the McLibel 2. I believe Franny Armstrong is a documentary filmmaker to look out for in the future because good fortune favors the bold – and tenacious.

For Movie Magazine, this is Joan Widdifield. ©
Air date: 6/22/05
More Information:
2004; Documentary film written and directed by Fanny Armstrong.