The Traverse City Film Festival, co-founded by Michael Moore, brought its fifth edition to a close on Sunday night after an eventful six days. Among the highlights: Moore and comedian Jeff Garlin announced they would launch a new Comedy Arts festival in Traverse City next March. Garlin, who co-stars alongside Larry David in the HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” gave a surprise sneak preview of the first two episodes of the upcoming season. Larry Charles screened outtakes from “Bruno” that may never be seen again. Curated sections showcased the cinema of Paul Mazursky; Austin, Texas; Palestine; and other themes. Wavy Gravy and Country Joe McDonald were on hand to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. And the annual “Mike’s Surprise” gave audiences a taste of Moore’s earliest and latest film work.
“Just Great Movies” is the motto of TCFF. The idea was born in 2005 between Moore, photographer John Robert Williams and Doug Stanton (author of “The Horse Soldiers”), who all reside in Traverse City, known as the “cherry capital.” The chief implementer of their vision is programmer Deb Lake, who this year pulled together a line-up of 71 feature films from 30 countries.
I’m not an unbiased observer. As a native Michigander, I share the local pride that infuses the festival’s huge volunteer corps; and I pitched in to moderate several Q&A sessions. But I can objectively report the enthusiasm expressed by seasoned festival goers making their first Traverse City appearance including Matt Tyrnauer (“Valentino: The Last Emperor”); Joe Berlinger (“Crude”); Kirby Dick (“Outrage”); and Yoav Shamir (“Defamation”).
“There’s an eeriness to the friendliness here,” said director Robert Byington, who presented two of his films in the Austin sidebar, “Harmony & Me” and “Registered Sex Offender.” Indeed guests are treated to multiple demonstrations of Midwestern hospitality: packed houses, standing ovations, and warm encounters along the main thoroughfare of Front Street. The festival is well-served by several large venues, including the 530-seat State Theater that Moore has restored as a year-round movie palace, complete with a balcony, red velvet curtain, electric stars on the ceiling, and an organ played before screenings. The comfy green rooms are stocked with snacks in an abundance that indicates why the state is ranked as the second fattest in the country. “Everywhere I go [in Traverse City], people give me cherry pie,” said Ben Steinbauer, another Austin director in town with his film “Winnebago Man.” “I feel thin here.”
“I’m known as the thin guy in Michigan,” joked Moore who has lost considerable weight since last year’s festival. Their repartee took place on one of the free panels held every morning at the 465-seat City Opera House. This session was devoted to “Comedy, American Style.” Moore and Garlin used the occasion to announce their plans for a comedy festival that was so freshly hatched, they couldn’t offer many more details except that they plan to feature both new and established talent. Garlin praised Brian Regan as the best comedian working today without his own TV show. Offering advice to aspiring comedians, Garlin said, “If you want to become a great comedian, force yourself for a year not to use a swear word.”
Not everything is played for laughs in Traverse City. A festival section called “Starring Planet Earth” contained eight feature documentaries that raise alarming environmental issues. Hitting close to home was “Waterlife,” presented by Canadian director Kevin McMahon, exploring the Great Lakes that surround Michigan and the threats to their well-being. The surge in filmmaking from Palestine was honored in a sidebar of four films. One revelation for me was “Salt of This Sea,” directed by Annemarie Jacir, that played last year at Cannes in Un Certain Regard. The fictional story follows Soraya (played by Suheir Hammad), a Palestinian woman raised in Brooklyn on her first trip to the West Bank. She meets Emad (played by Saleh Bakri, memorable from his performance in “The Band’s Visit”) and they take a intense journey through the contested land of Israel and Palestine. Since filming in the region, Jacir has not been allowed to cross Israeli borders to re-enter the Occupied Territories. She has been living in Amman, Jordan, but visited Traverse City with her producer Ossama Bawardi. In a light moment during a Q&A, she asked the audience, “Will someone adopt me?”
On the last day of the festival, Moore has traditionally set aside a slot for “Mike’s Surprise.” Ticket buyers have no idea what they’ll be getting until he makes the introduction. In past years, he’s shared sneak previews of “Slacker Uprising” and outtakes of “Sicko” before they were seen by any other audience. Taking the stage this year, he quickly dispelled hopes to see his latest work “Capitalism: A Love Story” that is set to premiere at the Venice and Toronto festivals before its fall release. “It’s way too risky,” he said to leak “some of the appalling things I’m going to present to rest of the country.” Instead, he showed a rough cut of a three-minute “Capitalism” trailer that opens with him standing at the doors of AIG – a leading recipient of Washington’s bailout – and announcing through a loud speaker that he intends to make a citizen’s arrest.
The voiceover goes on to characterize the bailout as a fiasco, stating that by spending a few million to buy Congress through campaign donations, Wall Street got billions. In addition to the trailer, Moore screened a seldom seen documentary called “Blood in the Face,” directed by Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty, and James Ridgeway, about neo-Nazis in Michigan. The film was shot in the 1980s and released in ’91. The filmmakers recruited Moore, who was then a newspaper editor, to conduct on-camera interviews. In turn, Moore asked Rafferty to teach him the basics of camera and editing for “Roger & Me.” “It was a great film school,” said Moore, “and I’m forever in their debt.”
[Thom Powers is the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival; and the artistic director of Stranger Than Fiction in New York City.]