Since "Sicko" opened in theaters seven weeks ago, Michael Moore has been energetically speaking to the press about health care--including a sparring match with CNN's Wolf Blitzer that became a hit on YouTube. But that hectic schedule didn't deter Moore from presiding over the third annual Traverse City Film Festival that he co-founded in the Michigan resort town where he also keeps a home.
For the festival's opening last Wednesday, Moore appeared on stage with Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, a rising star in the Democratic party (disqualified as a Presidential hopeful for having been born in Canada). Granholm presented Moore with a surprise gift: a pair of boxing gloves bearing the image of Blitzer. The gesture was emblematic of the festival's sense of humor, local pride, and pugnacious politics.
One crowd-pleaser was a preview of the upcoming Sundance Channel documentary series "Nimrod Nation" that follows a high school basketball team from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The region's initials U.P. prompt residents to call themselves "yoopers" characterizing a northern small town identity, reminiscent of the film "Fargo." A large contingent of yoopers from "Nimrod Nation" made the long drive to attend the festival, joining the series director Brett Morgen. One yooper acknowledged that he had voted for George Bush, but that didn't stop him from also appreciating Moore.
The festival showcased a wide spectrum of documentaries. Besides Morgen, who also presented his doc "Chicago 10," other attendees included the directors of "Everything's Cool" Dan Gold and Judith Helfand; and doc veterans D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus who showed "Dont Look Back" and "Al Franken: God Spoke." John Laurence, brought his debut film "I Am An American Soldier: One Year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne," based on his recent embedding with US troops. But should Laurence be described as a newcomer or a veteran? In the 1960s, Laurence covered Vietnam for CBS News and reported the 1970 Emmy-winning special "The World of Charlie Company." In his superb 2001 memoir "The Cat From Hue," he discloses his career-long yearning to make a feature length documentary. Now at the age of 67 he's finally fulfilled that ambition with "I Am An American Soldier."
Another festival highlight was a special presentation by "Borat" director Larry Charles, sharing behind the scenes clips from the film. He showed two sections, each one roughly 10 minutes long, that had never been shown before and, according to Charles, may never be seen again. One gives an insight to Charles' directing method. We see Charles inside a mini-van parked outside of a Texas house. He follows Borat's actions on a small monitor, dictating directions from his microphone to crew's earpieces. In this scene, Borat goes to the door of unsuspecting locals, trying to sell them a newspaper subscription. When they let him indoors, he asks to use the bathroom, then emerges wrapped in a towel after taking a shower. The Texans politely ask Borat to leave, lock him out, then call the police. Charles's mini-van races away from the scene, leaving actor Sascha Baron Cohen to jump in another vehicle. The only problem is Borat's clothes were left behind in the bathroom. Charles spends the next several hours counseling his crew how to retrieve Borat's clothes, never disclosing that any of it was a ruse. The clothes are eventually procured for a small money exchange.
The clip reveals the way Charles' team executed operations like a Delta Force and how he had schooled himself in local laws enough to never cross the line. The crew was frequently stopped by police, but never charged with a crime. Charles spoke at length about other scenes left behind and expressed his wish to someday release a six-hour version of the film. That was the length of the first rough cut that he said "is a sweeter, more lyrical version of the final film, like Don Quixote".
The festival came to a close on Sunday, showing visible growth from last year. The addition of an 850-seat venue didn't stop shows from selling out. Every night, audiences estimated at 7,000 to 10,000 turned out for a free outdoor screening of popcorn movies like "E.T." and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Watching a 65-foot screen under the stars brought a sense of awe and wonder that's missing from so much movie-going today. One can easily imagine some young person in the crowd being inspired to become the next Steven Spielberg. Or the next Michael Moore.
[Thom Powers is the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and Stranger Than Fiction at the IFC Center in New York. He writes the the TIFF blog.]