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Michael Moore’s 12-Year Project: How His Film Festival Changed a City

We sit down with the filmmaker, who has turned a sleepy resort town into a cultural oasis for sophisticated cinema.

State Theatre

Michael Moore’s State Theatre in Traverse City, Michigan.

Anne Thompson

Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival is a welcome reminder of the power of film. Since 2005, he has slowly turned a conservative small town in Northwest Michigan — a four-hour drive away from any major city — into a community of ardent film enthusiasts. Not only that, but they are no longer quite as narrow-minded. Now there are decent restaurants on the main drag. Tourists flock in for the five-day summer festival (which this year ran July 26-31), which sells 130,000 tickets and generates more than $5 million dollars in commerce every year.

Over time, Moore has won over the residents of Traverse City, building their involvement in running his year-round arthouse The State, plus mainstream The Bijou (built in an old WPA building) and the annual festival, all of which are staffed by volunteers led by resident Deb Lake. They feed Traverse City audiences a steady diet of films foreign and domestic, gay and straight, feature and doc, long and short.

This year, Moore used TCFF XII to celebrate women filmmakers. Thirty-six women directed the U.S. narrative and documentary competition films. (Award-winners here.) And more women filmmakers turned up in other sections, from foreign to shorts to six films shown on the 65-foot screen at the nightly outdoor cinema The Buzz on Traverse Bay, where you could also watch breezy night screenings on a slow-circling catamaran.

Michael Moore

Michael Moore intros women directors on opening night.

Anne Thompson

Flint, Michigan native Moore lives where his movies take him; he maintains apartments in New York and Traverse City, where the family of his ex-wife and one-time producer Kathleen Glynn summered for years. Moore, Glynn and her daughter, now 36, continued the tradition.

On opening night Moore called me up to the State stage to introduce Maya Forbes’ “Infinitely Polar Bear,” which he insisted on showcasing over the protests of his staff, who reminded him that the Mark Ruffalo dysfunctional family drama was already two years old and available on Netflix. But it’s his festival and local celebrity Moore can do what he wants.

Moore and I talked in the basement green room of The State Theatre as a film was in progress. Our conversation is on the next page.

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