It’s Michael and them
MICHAEL MOORE earned his celebrity stalking General Motors’ chief executive, shaming gun lover Charlton Heston and lampooning President Bush while playing the all-American little guy.
That cheeky style so inspired liberal Toronto filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine that when their attempts to interview Moore were stonewalled, they Michael Moore-ed the master. They trailed his 2004 tour of college campuses, cornered him at his own film festival, and even faked credentials to get into one of his lectures, antics that got them booted from the event. The result is “Manufacturing Dissent,” a “Roger & Me"-style expedition, starring the self-styled champion of the proletariat as an ethically bereft icon of info-tainment.
“We agree the bigger message Michael Moore is talking about is great,” said Melnyk. “But you have to give your message in an honest way, and that’s the debate we wanted to bring out.”
The film has been touring the festivals, just in time to ride the controversy and media froth kicked up by Moore’s latest missive, “Sicko,” an indictment of U.S. healthcare, opening in L.A. Friday. But the publicity hasn’t helped Melnyk and Caine much.
The film still has no U.S. theatrical distribution, though last week L.A.-based Liberation Entertainment bought the rights to distribute it on DVD in the U.S. and Britain on the heels of “Sicko.” Moore has repeatedly declined comment on “Dissent,” including requests for this story. Last weekend, however, after a screening of “Sicko” not far from his home near Bellaire, Mich., Moore denied the film’s most damning allegation: that he’d fabricated the premise of “Roger & Me.”
In a few cases, Melnyk and Caine’s efforts to screen their movie have bumped up against Moore’s substantial influence in the world of documentary film. He’s the box office king of the genre, celebrated both by the film elite and by average Americans. Even Moore haters see his films, if for no other reason than to blog about them. At the same time, Moore has become a symbol of the liberal left, one of its loudest and most confrontational voices.
Melnyk, a Toronto-born freelance TV producer, and her husband, Caine, an Ohio native and cameraman, spent about two years on the film, first trailing Moore on his Great ’04 Slacker Uprising tour of college campuses for CHUM Television, which will air “Dissent” this fall on the Bravo!Canada network. Every time the filmmakers asked Moore for a sit-down interview, he politely declined, explaining he had no time.
As the tour wore on, Moore’s handlers grew increasingly frosty, refusing to allow Melnyk and Caine to record sound at a Detroit appearance and having them escorted from another at Kent State University. In one scene, Moore’s sister Anne is heard ordering the filmmakers to hand over their driver’s licenses and is shown swatting at the filmmakers’ camera. They were kicked out of Moore’s Traverse City (Mich.) Film Festival after questioning his nonprofit’s investments in defense contractor Halliburton and drug maker Eli Lilly.
“This is like the last taboo in the industry,” said Caine. “Look at anything you want, but not your own.”
Two key U.S. documentary film festivals -- Full Frame in Durham, N.C., and Silverdocs, the AFI/Discovery Channel event in Silver Spring, Md. -- declined to screen “Dissent,” in part because of Michael Moore. Silverdocs hoped to present “Sicko,” and Moore was a special guest at Full Frame. A rep for one film buyer told the filmmakers in an e-mail that they were wary of the “political nature” of the film and would distribute “Dissent” on DVD in Canada but not in the U.S. (The filmmakers passed.)
Melnyk and Caine viewed this as a sort of blacklisting. But there’s just as much indication that for some, including Silverdocs’ programmers who found “Dissent” uneven, the film simply didn’t live up to expectations.
The filmmakers got an unexpected ally in John Pierson. Now a film instructor, he brokered the $3-million distribution deal with Warner Bros. for Moore’s 1989 blockbuster “Roger & Me” and recently took on “Dissent” as a project for his producing class at the University of Texas at Austin during the South by Southwest Film Festival there. He praises “Dissent” as the first journalistic film about Moore. But Pierson is not convinced Melnyk and Caine have been unfairly marginalized as a result of it.
“When people have a choice, they’d rather stay on Michael Moore’s good side,” said Pierson. “But that doesn’t mean there’s a vast conspiracy to beat down his opponents.”
In fact “Dissent” is just the latest in a series of documentaries that attempt to discredit Moore, although critics and some festival programmers consider it one of the more even-handed of the lot.
It’s a dense film that aggregates a lot of old news long overshadowed by Moore’s phenomenal commercial success. Still, the sheer volume of what it presents as Moore’s exaggerations, omissions, discrepancies and ambiguities are provocative.
Film festival producer Matt Dentler of South by Southwest said “Dissent” was chosen to premiere in Austin because it provoked such enormous debate among programmers. It raised valid questions about Moore, he said, who, by virtue of his celebrity, deserves close scrutiny.
“You’re talking about the most successful -- award for award, dollar for dollar -- nonfiction filmmaker of all time,” said Dentler. “There’s a certain amount of responsibility that goes along with that.”
Not all viewers on board
BUT Melnyk and Caine soon found that roughly a third of U.S. audiences who watched screenings of “Dissent” were ambivalent about its accusations. Some berated the filmmakers for unfairly dissecting Moore. At the Austin screening some critics accused them of the same bold maneuvers Moore pioneered. Others argued that as long as Moore’s films serve a greater good, who cares what he fabricates?
“The slippages and falsehoods amongst Moore’s films are unfortunate,” an uncredited IFC blogger wrote, “but not a stunning revelation in these days of reality show techniques.”
Among the film’s charges is that Moore fabricated the premise of “Roger & Me,” a documentary that set new commercial and creative standards for the genre. The film follows Moore’s unsuccessful quest to confront the chief executive of General Motors, Roger Smith, on layoffs at the Flint auto manufacturing plant. But “Dissent” reports that Moore spoke to him twice, in 1987 and 1988.
After a June 16 screening of “Sicko” in Bellaire, Mich., Moore told the Associated Press that he had “a good five minutes of back-and forth” with Smith about a company tax abatement at a 1987 shareholders’ meeting. But, he said, that was before he began working on “Roger & Me” and had nothing to do with the film.
“If I’d gotten an interview with him, why wouldn’t I put it in the film?” Moore said. “Any exchange with Roger Smith would have been valuable.”
Moore’s former colleague Jim Musselman, who at the time was working with Moore on a Ralph Nader campaign to save auto plant jobs, said in “Dissent” that he was sitting next to Moore when the filmmaker questioned Smith during the stockholders meeting in 1987. Musselman told the filmmakers that Moore recut that footage to make it appear as though Smith ignored his questions and switched off Moore’s microphone. Musselman also said he was present when Moore sat down with Smith in 1988 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York for a 15-minute, one-on-one Q&A.;
GM union representative Mike Westfall provided the filmmakers with an audiotape of the 1987 stockholders meeting exchange. Smith himself, in a phone call with Melnyk included in “Dissent,” said he didn’t cut off Moore’s microphone as Moore depicted in his film. “Dissent” also includes the 1990 Premiere magazine article that first published the transcript of that 1987 exchange.
In a recent interview, Pierson said he now believes Musselman’s claim that Moore spoke with Smith.
“Dissent” also makes note of a 2000 tax return that lists Moore as president of the Center for Alternative Media and Culture, a New York-based nonprofit that invested in industrial and aerospace conglomerate Honeywell, the Iraq war defense contractor Halliburton and drug maker Eli Lilly, among others.
In “Dissent,” when Melnyk confronts him over his nonprofit’s investments, Moore first denies having a personal foundation, then says he doesn’t have time to answer to the “crazy right-wingers,” and finally tells her: “The people know the truth. You can’t fool the people. Little while? Yes. Long term. No. And nobody will believe that stuff. They don’t believe it.”
In an interview in the June 1 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Moore described his work as a specific art form, apart from traditional documentary film. It’s a shift from his position in 2004, when he announced that he’d set up a rebuttal “war room” to vet the reporting in “Fahrenheit 9/11" and posted a “line-by-line factual backup” to the film on his website, michaelmoore.com.
“I continue to hope,” he wrote in a May 23 posting on his website, “that I can make a contribution to the art of cinema and give people a good reason to get out of the house for a few hours.”