On Saturday, May 22, 2004, an extraordinary event took place in the Grand Théatre Lumiére (perhaps the greatest movie theater in the world,) in Cannes, France. Michael Moore, former Flint resident and America’s provocateur number one, was awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, without question the greatest prize in world cinema, making him the first documentary filmmaker to win since Jacques Cousteau won in 1956 for The Silent World. The award was given for Moore’s new film Fahrenheit 911,and was the culmination of a long, strange journey for the film and filmmaker.
Michael Moore is a polarizing figure in the Flint community, where many believe he is responsible for portraying Flint in a negative light, holding up the community’s struggles and failures, which are indeed legion, to national scrutiny in an unflattering, and often satirical manner. There are also those who agree with his tactics and his storytelling techniques, recognizing that in order to illustrate his arguments about the nature of power in America, it is important to demonstrate the reality of the economic and political abandonment of working class communities. Whatever side of the Moore divide you choose to fall on (I am in the camp of the latter group), there can be no doubting his effectiveness as a documentary filmmaker. In fact, Moore’s brand of pot-stirring is so divisive and powerful, there are several websites that have been established for the sole purpose of attempting to debunk his films and his arguments, the most salacious of them going so far as to say that ‘Moore fixes upon a conclusion and, when the data do not exist, simply invents them.’
The truth is that all film is storytelling, and in the case of documentary, even more so. Whereas a fictional films can utilize invented scenarios and dramatic events in order to illustrate greater human truths (see The Last Temptation of Christ for a clear illustration of how this can be as divisive as non-fiction), documentary films must generate drama from the stuff of real life, and then only what is captured by the camera. In addition to its dramatic charge, a great documentary, like all great films, must have singular and powerful point of view; it must make an argument. Some documentaries, like the classic Salesman or Grey Gardens by the Maysles Brothers, or Titticut Follies by the incomparable Frederick Wiseman, use the technique of removing the filmmaker from the proceedings on the screen, allowing the documentarian to make his point of view clearly known in the editing suite, through the selection and ordering of scenes and materials. Moore had great success in Roger and Me by establishing himself as an onscreen character, a piece of the story integral to his subjective style of narrative. But don’t be fooled. All documentary film is predicated on a subjective narrative. There is a subject, but the artist behind the camera records and selects how the film looks, what footage will be used, in what order, and to what end. Documentary film is not news reportage; it has more in common with fictional cinema, simply deriving its dramatic content from real life events. In order to make great art, the documentarian is charged only with telling the truth.
Of course, this calls into question the fundamental notion of truth in film. Is the truth of a situation or event only to be told chronologically, through as many subjective viewpoints as possible, and presented as broadly as possible so the audience can glean the so-called objective reality? That may be the goal of scholarship, but it has never been the domain of great art. What art is and should always be about is a filtering of events and ideas through the artist’s sensibilities, to be presented back to an audience through the artist’s point of view. There is no doubt that Michael Moore has a unique and powerful point of view, yet some still wish to believe that a passionate work of art, commenting on the world in which we live, should seek objectivity and balance. Having seen what ‘balance’ has wrought on the supposedly objective television news business (the appallingly partisan Fox News Channel, a channel whose jingoistic, hawkish ‘reportage’ has lowered the bar for civil discourse in our country), one can only hope that balance and objectivity be forever withheld as criteria for artistic validity.
Cannes has always been a hothouse meeting between art and politics, never more notoriously so than in 1968, when filmmakers (among them François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard) shut the festival down in solidarity with student protesters. So when Quinten Tarrantino, the president of this year’s Cannes jury, announced Moore’s name as the winner of the Palme d’Or, not only was the artistic credibility of Moore’s work irrevocably validated, his cinematic approach and tactics were also brought into the official pantheon of great art. Of course, Moore’s art and his politics are inseparable. Politics are the center of Moore’s arguments and his artistic vision, and based on his body of work, they clearly inspire his artistic choices, admittedly not always for the best. In previous films (and I must confess, since The Uncommon Sense did not have the budget to send me to Cannes, I have yet to see Fahrenheit 911, hence my refusal to make claims for its artistic credibility beyond the winning of the Palme), Moore’s use of his on-screen persona has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is the power of the camera and his unflinching desire to meet confrontation head-on that has enabled him to capture some incredibly profound and dramatic moments on film. On the other, by so firmly placing himself in the center of his narratives, he has allowed many of his critics to associate his personality solely with his politics and ignore his artistry. This technique, however, is gaining in popularity, and a slew of new documentary filmmakers, inspired by Moore’s approach (most notably Morgan Spurlock’s must-see Super Size Me), have begun to create works of art that not only document current political stories, but also track the filmmaker’s subjective journey in search of the truth.
Of course, no film really matters if it is never seen by an audience, and the Disney Corporation’s refusal to allow its subsidiary Miramax to release Fahrenheit 911 because it doesn’t want to be involved with so political a film during an election year was not only a failed attempt to silence political speech, but also a decision that promises to generate even more money at the box-office for Lions Gate and IFC. As Moore finalized his new distribution deal, Disney continued to pour gasoline on the firestorm that the film created. All of this means an exciting time for documentary film fans, and the certainty of Fahrenheit 911‘s broad distribution. And of course, Michael Moore gets to bask in the glow of his Cannes win. Politics aside, Moore’s name is now listed among the giants of world cinema, names like Buñuel, Wilder, Welles, Fellini, and Kurosawa. I believe, like any community that nurtures and inspires a great artist, Flint should celebrate this incredible honor right along with him.