Make way for the Michigan film mafia. The Traverse City Film Festival, headed by Michael Moore, concluded its fourth edition on Sunday, bringing a large dose of cinematic excitement to this lakeshore town, otherwise known for its cherry crop. Moore, wearing a scruffy beard, had his celebrity eclipsed by another homegrown star Madonna, who appeared to present the documentary “I Am Because We Are.” She wrote and produced the film, directed by Nathan Rissman, about the effects of AIDS on orphaned children in Malawi. Along the main drag of Front Street this past weekend, every conversation seemed to refer to the Material Girl turned philanthropist. But her appearance was only the cherry on top of the festival’s other rich desserts.
Moore and his programming team always have a few surprises that other festivals might envy. This year, the special offerings included a tribute to director Stanley Donen, who spoke before a large audience at the Traverse City Opera House about his classic musicals such as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Funny Face” and “On the Town.” Larry Charles, a member of the TCFF board and a festival regular, presented his new film “Religulous,” featuring Bill Maher comically interviewing people of faith. The film played as a sneak preview in advance of its official world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Another film screening as a sneak preview, “Flash of Genius,” has a strong local hook. Based on a true story, Greg Kinnear stars as a humble Detroit inventor who takes an impossible lawsuit against the automobile industry all the way to the Supreme Court.
Most of the 70 or so titles at TCFF were carefully chosen from the year’s festival circuit. Directors attending with their films included Amin Matalqa with his Sundance Audience Award winner “Captain Abu Raed,” about an old janitor in Jordan who regales children with made up stories; and Cesar Charlone with “The Pope’s Toilet,” about an opportunist in Uruguay with an unusual money-making scheme. One of the joys of Traverse City is to watch films like these play so strongly to audiences disconnected from the film industry. Talking to the directors in between screenings, Moore noted many attendees aren’t even accustomed to watching subtitled films outside what they see here. Yet their appreciation runs deep. Even on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, the 350-seat Old Town Playhouse was packed for the Russian-language documentary Miss Gulag, directed by Maria Yatskova. I served as a story consultant on the film and witnessed screenings in Washington, DC and New York City. But Traverse City was one of the most engaged post-show discussions in the film’s year-long run.
Local pride always has a place at TCFF. The festival gives out the Michigan Filmmaker Award honoring distinguished native sons and daughters such as Jeff Daniels and Christine Lahti. This year’s honor went to screenwriter Kurt Luedtke who wrote “Absence of Malice” and won an Oscar for “Out of Africa“. Michigan is hoping for a sharp rise in production since Governor Jennifer Granholm recently ushered in a 40% refundable tax credit for films shooting in the state (for a full list of the initiatives, check out their website. Moore moderated a panel to discuss making films in Michigan. Panelist John Walter, a Detroit native, recalled trying to break into the business in the mid-80s. He wound up working for Sam Raimi, who produced “The Evil Dead” out of a suburban Detroit office. Walter got a job as a boom operator on “Evil Dead II” and ultimately had his hand appear in the film as the severed appendage that turns against Bruce Campbell‘s character. Today Walter is better known for his 2002 documentary “How to Draw a Bunny” about the Michigan-born artist Ray Johnson. His latest documentary “Theater of War,” playing at TCFF, explores the career of Bertolt Brecht through the 2006 production of “Mother Courage,” starring Meryl Streep and staged by the Public Theater in Central Park. Opening at Film Forum on Christmas Eve, “Theater of War” received high praise from Moore who told the audience it’s the best documentary he’s seen in ten years.
On the last day of the festival, Moore moderated a panel of filmmakers who once worked for him and now have their own films playing at the festival. Gini Reticker, who worked as an editor on “Roger & Me,” was showing her Tribeca prize winner “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” about the role of women in changing Liberia’s politics. Jason Pollock, who was Moore’s assistant during “Fahrenheit 9/11,” was debuting as a director with “The Youngest Candidate,” about teenagers running for public office. Tia Lessin, who worked with Moore for ten years, and Carl Deal, who handled archival footage for “Fahrenheit 9/11,” collaborated on “Trouble the Water,” which won the Best Documentary Prize at Sundance. There was a warm family atmosphere among the group as they shared stories from the filmmaking trenches. Moore recalled reaching a point of desperation trying to finance the sound mix for “Roger & Me” when he was ready offer worldwide rights for $10,000 to a PBS executive, who turned down the offer because he didn’t find the film funny. Eventually, the late Bill Nisselsen at Sound One agreed to mix the film for free and Moore went on to sell it to Warner Brothers for a reported $3 million. Recalling this turn of fortune, Moore called out to the director of “Religulous,” “See, Larry Charles, this is proof there is a God.”