Saturday, June 16, 2007

Hot Docs Interview: Moore and Me

Again I think some version or other of this appeared in the latest Totally Dublin. This unedited interview contains a couple of hundred extra words, it's probably littered with spelling errors too. The photo to the left shows Rick Caine and his co-Director Debbie Melnyk, and the second captures a Saturday afternoon rush during the festival.

Rick Caine has been running the gauntlet of controversy across the documentary festival circuit this summer with his latest production Manufacturing Dissent. Sirring the pot first at South By South West and then Toronto’s Hot Docs, it's an acerbic look at the work of Michael Moore. Intended to explore what made a cine idol tick, along this journey Caine and his co-director Debbie Melnyk discovered that behind Moore's everyman malcontent facade lies a ruthless technique of self-creation. One that has left reeling friendships and burnt bridges, never mind a body of work stained by half truths bent for effect and out of context interview splicing. Caine, now based in Toronto where we caught up with him at the recent Hot Doc's Festival, is far from a neo-con detractor. His work is less a critique of Moore's politics than of his method, he simply believes power shaking documentarians must cling to a truth ethic or risk blowing their own foundations, and worse that of those sharing their views.

Do you think the world of documentaries has benefited from phenomenon that was Michael Moore at blockbuster level?

Yes, of course. Documentaries now play side by side with formulaic Hollywood fare in many cities and suburbs right across the world now. Michael Moore has played no small part in this documentary renaissance. His breakthrough documentary Roger & Me was the first time that a documentary was released outside of the traditional "art house" documentary ghetto. Of course wider audiences are interested in these kinds of films, but Hollywood has traditionally had the distribution channel sown up.

How has Hollywood sown up the distribution channel and can documentaries do much to challenge this?

At any given time 92% of the films showing across the world are American Hollywood films. There is of course much yet till to be done to break this monopoly and documentaries have no small role to play in this regard. And for documentaries, as a genre, it is ironically the best of times the worst of times. Michael Moore is amongst those on the best of time side of the equation.

His last film, Fahrenheit 9/11, had a production budget of US$6 million. The film grossed $125 million in the US and about $220 million worldwide. By any objective measure a remarkable and unprecedented accomplishment. But I also say that it is the worst of times because Hollywood still so thoroughly dominates the box office that we are currently in a situation where one can go to film festivals and see remarkable documentaries but all-too-frequently they will not be coming to a theater near you. Instead we will continue seeing Spiderman 3, Shrek 3, and on and on.

So while documentaries are struggling to escape the ghetto, Hollywood continues to fill theaters with entertaining, unchallenging, vacuous fare that audiences can choose to see or not go to the movies. It is still rare where there is any other option. But Michael Moore is among a select group of documentary filmmakers who are making progress in changing this dynamic. And we who believe think that once audiences get a taste of something else out there, that genie won't be put back in that bottle again.

So what is it that documentary making does better than your standard Hollywood fare?

One thing documentary filmmaking does incredibly well is that it can share the human experience of one person with other human beings, bringing us all closer together and strengthening our human bond. From a PR standpoint documentaries are a nightmare because PR is interested in only a one-sided truth, the white lie. Whereas documentary filmmaking aims to expose lies and not make them. But PR and advertising are interested in only the positive spin: Toxic sludge is good for you, light cigarettes don't cause cancer and you can eat almost nothing but bacon and lose weight (the Atkins diet).

And because we live in a world full of these white lies and one-sided truths, fuelled by big budget advertisers and well funded special interests we are all hungry (starved!) for the unvarnished truth. I have a friend that says the truth ain't couth but as we all have heard it can also set you free.

What is it that makes a documentary such a potent political tool as a purveyor of truths?

Immediacy, portability and the power of images. The medium, documentary filmmaking, is inherently powerful. Marshal McLuhan said the medium is the message. We've all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this was written before the advent of the moving image. Documentary filmmakers are able to use feature filmmaking techniques to examine the messiness that is humanity, all the while with images trumping words, very powerful stuff. We don't write about the Iraq War, we take you to the front line. We don't describe the suffering of someone who has lot their son in war, we capture and then show you the experience and allow any audience to experience it first hand.

Another reason documentary filmmaking is such a powerful tool is it's portability. Al Gore can only be lecturing about the threat posed by global warming/climate change in one place at one time. But with a film his message is instantly accessible now and forever. And watching a film is a communal experience. Unlike passive Hollywood films that entertain but don't provoke thought or action, documentaries can stir the masses to action. Sometimes when documentaries end the discussion and action is just getting started.

What should documentary makers do to make sure they are using this power instead of abusing it?

Always bear in mind that no matter how passionately you feel about any given social/political issue your values are not worth selling out just to make a point or to manipulate or mislead your audience into agreeing with you. The end does not justify the means. Do you think it's wrong to lie? Then don't do it. If you think it's important to treat others the way you'd like to be treated? Then don't take interview subjects out of context.

If a filmmaker chooses to tell the truth so many of these other things take care of themselves, including using the power instead of abusing it. It is occasionally painful to adhere to strict compliance with things like decency, fairness and truth but by disregarding these kinds of restraints the filmmaker ultimately does himself, his audience and sometimes his cause a disservice.

So with Michael Moore in mind, what are the consequences of the abuse of this documentarian power?

Part of the contention of our film is that when Michael Moore lies he gives the opposition a club with which they can bash everyone on Moore's side. "See they don't care about the truth. See they don't want honest political debate." If we think that the US president lying to the American public is not the way forward, how can we believe that the solution is having the opposition lie as well. Two wrongs don't make a right.

The title of the movie is a nice play on a Chomsky book title, after this movie will your aim remain on mainstream media shenanigans as it has with Junket Whore's expose of entertainment journalists lick arse relationship to PR and the Citizen Black portrait of media baron Conrad Black's cataclysmic fall?

Our next film is going to be fiction, but still in the same vein. It's about Lester Bangs, co-founder and music critic of Creem Magazine. Now he is the polar opposite of Michael Moore. He couldn't help telling the truth, he had an almost childlike honesty and was hated by many bands because he was so honest about their music. He died of an unintentional drug overdose at age 33.

How did the movie move from being a biography of Moore to a critique?

We always hoped that Michael Moore would cooperate in our look at him. Being political fellow travellers and Canadian and we'd heard thru friends that he liked the channel we'd been commissioned by to take a look at him, CHUM Television. So when Michael Moore's people began giving us such a hard time on a certain level we couldn't believe it. It was about this same time, approximately 4 months into our filming that we really started to struggle with our original concept and we felt we were at a crossroads. We began asking ourselves are we non-fiction (documentary) filmmakers or or we just going to stick with this sort of official biography about Michael Moore?

So when we hit this fork in the road we felt that morphing the project and going a different direction felt more like the truth than our original concept. So we changed it. But I have to say this is part of what we really love about non-fiction filmmaking. If one sets out in search of a story and it turns out to be something different then you're free to follow it. When we discovered so many skeltons in the closet, we felt we had no other choice than to turn it into an examination or critique of his methods and techniques and what the implications are not just for documentary filmmaking but for society.

We realized that when Michael refused to do an interview we would also have to follow him around to try and get any footage of him and soundbites to use in the film. We didn't expect his team to be bullies. When we realized what they were doing, trying to stop us from doing our film, we thought we should include it in the film because in a way, by showing the behind the scenes of a documentary we were getting at another level of truth. We couldn't believe when we got kicked out of Kent State and we thought others would find it shocking as well. We also felt at a certain point that documentaries should expose lies and not tell them. And if they chose to lie then they are part of the problem and not part of the solution. We regard this as the crucial issue of our time. We all want to live in well functionng democracies. That in turn is dependent upon a well informed electorate. And that depends on media that chooses not to lie and mislead the public. The horrific implications of this are obvious when one looks at how FOX News covered the lead up to the Iraq War. They don't even try to hide it. Roger Ailes was the head of the republican party and then he is runningand then he is running FOX News, doesn't get any more obvious than that. Fair and balanced my ass.

Before seeing this movie people might paint you as a neo-con detractor, didn't Fox News try and use you like this only to get a swift surprise?

FOX News assumed when they read about our film that we were in agreement with their agenda, which we aren't, and they also erroniously assumed that even if we weren't political fellow travellers that they could still use us to expose Michael Moore. For them the equation is really simple: If Michael Moore is wrong then ergo we must be right.

So in the lead up to our film premiering at the SXSW Festival several FOX News shows, both TV and radio, were chasing us insisting on interviews. We didn't want FOX to own the story and so we declined all requests from them. But then once the film had premiered at SXSW and other major media outlets had done interviews with us like CNN and MSNBC we agreed to go on a FOX News show because it had the name "Live" in the title (The Live Desk with Martha McCallum or something like that.) But we were cut off in short order after I starting discussing how some major news organisations, hello FOX, were not telling the American public the full truth and how that was causing problems for democracy and I remember I heard them in the IFB I had in my ear screaming "Get that asshole off the air."

Just after they pulled the plug (we were interviewed remotely and not in their New York studios) the cameraman looked at me and said "They had a five minute segment planned, but I think it run just under two minutes." "That was my fault," I said, "Guess they didn't want to hear what I had to say." From my point of view though this was a good thing. Where the right-wing U. S. media had been all over us now the only right leaning members of the U. S. media who called was because they wanted to argue with me, which I have done on their radio programs and what not.

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