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Michael Moore Heads a Communal Mission at His Traverse City Film Festival

Michael Moore Heads a Communal Mission at His Traverse City Film Festival

Michael Moore is on a mission to save movie theaters in the age of downloads. Last week for the opening night of the Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF) he told the audience, “There’s a communal aspect to film. The way we [filmmakers] are constructing [stories] – whether you laugh or cry or [get] mad or ponder something or escape – the feeling of doing that collectively is so much different than doing it alone. That’s why the movies will never die no matter how many devices are invented. People still want to get out of the house and go to the movies.”

The power of the communal experience was thriving at the festival, filling five large venues from morning to night for an adventurous selection of international, independent, and documentary films. This year the mix of directors included Italy’s Sabina Guzzanti (“Draquila – Italy Trembles”), Australia’s Mark Lewis (“Cane Toads: The Conquest” in 3D), and a contingent of Cuban filmmakers for an embargo-busting sidebar devoted to the country. Each night featured a free outdoor screening of crowd-pleasers like “Twister” and “Mary Poppins” that attract thousands of viewers.

In an interview with indieWIRE, Moore elaborated on his philosophy of film exhibition and a new initiative to support theaters around the beleaguered state of Michigan. Three years ago, Moore refurbished the State Theater in the heart of Traverse City with new projection equipment, red velvet curtains and electric stars on the ceiling. In its 130 weeks of existence, Moore noted, the State has ranked in the top 10 of the country’s highest grossing theaters for 76 weeks. Recently, it’s been doing strong business on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” despite subtitles and a long length that would normally be considered a detriment in small town America. “If it can happen here,” Moore said, “it can happen anywhere.”

Putting his money where his mouth is, Moore used the occasion of TCFF to announce the State Theater Project. The initiative will offer seed grants to non-profit theaters in Michigan and train their managers in Traverse City. Thanks to Michigan’s tax rebate for filmmakers, Moore is due to receive $1 million from the state for having produced “Capitalism: A Love Story” in Michigan. He pledged the entire refund into the State Theater Project and hopes to be dispersing grants in 2011.

Moore issued an 18-point set of “organizing principles” for grant recipients that constitute a credo to improve modern cinema going. Sample points include:
– “The theater itself must be built or rebuilt in such a way to transport people into a movie palace from the glory days of cinema (1920s-1940s).”
– “No commercials other than ‘coming attractions’ trailers will ever be shown on our screen.”
– “Anyone caught using a cell phone or texting or displaying any type of glowing screen once the movie begins…will be banned for life from the theater.”

This is my fifth year attending TCFF and seeing these principles in action. I have a history of presenting Moore’s work at the Toronto International Film Festival and recruiting him for the advisory board of the new DOC NYC festival. But even without those connections, I would feel the tug to return to Traverse City each summer for its Midwestern audiences, who are so generous with their appreciation.

The TCFF screening of “How to Fold a Flag” took on an extra gravitas at the festival. The film about combat veterans of the Iraq war readjusting to civilian life in America screened on the same day as the funeral Cpl. Paul James Miller, a Traverse City marine killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan the previous week. Jon Powers, a former soldier featured in “How to Fold a Flag,” attended the screening and received a standing ovation. The directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein were unable to attend due to their current production titled “Fightville.”

Another film that gained extra local resonance was “Gasland” about the practice of fracking to extract natural gas and its serious risks to the environment. A map in the film points out that Michigan is a key state targeted by energy companies for fracking. Director Josh Fox was joined at the screening by Michigan activists who have been campaigning against the practice, including one woman who blames natural gas excavation near her home for a drastic decline in her health. Following the screening, a spirited conversation continued in nearby Lay Park. Residents exchanged reports that energy companies are targeting the region of Traverse City for future natural gas extraction.

A scene from Josh Fox’s “Gasland.” Photo courtesy of TCFF.

On a social level at the festival, I enjoyed catching up with directors who are turning attention to new works in progress even as they continue to travel with their last films, including:
– Judith Ehrlich (co-director “Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”) is now following WikiLeaks, the organization that recently circulated classified US government documents on Afghanistan, for “The Leak Heard Around the World.”
– Joshua Ligairi (co-director, “Cleanflix”) is in production on “Skeleton Picnic,” being shot on the Red camera, about a FBI sting of grave robbers who plunder Native American burial sites.
– Andrew James (co-director, “Cleanflix”) has been filming on the Canon 7D SLR camera for “Street Fighting Man,” looking at the economically depressed city of Detroit and how individuals are treating problems with novel solutions such as vigilante justice.
– Heidi Ewing (co-director “12th & Delaware”), a native Michigander, is also focusing on the Motor City with her filmmaking partner Rachel Grady for “Detroit Hustles Harder,” tracking entrepreneurs, visionaries, and public servants in the city, conceived as a non-fiction ensemble piece in the tradition of Robert Altman.

And what about Moore’s future plans? Last year when he was promoting “Capitalism: A Love Story,” he dropped suggestions that he might take a break from documentary-making. When asked, Moore deflected the question: “I don’t see me making one, do you?” He shared that he was spending more time on writing projects. Moore was recently elected to the Board of Governors that sets the general policies of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. He said he was the only member of the board who lives in a fly-over state. “That means I represent everything from La Cienega Boulevard to West Side Highway,” he joked. When it comes to the ever contentious rules to Oscar qualify a documentary, Moore wants to “simplify and have them be the same rules as every other category.”

Whether or not Hollywood will give in to Moore’s vision, Traverse City has embraced him. The city’s mayor Chris Bzdok recalled hearing Moore in the first year of the festival say, “Remember this moment, because in five years you are going to tell people you went to the festival when it was cool.”

“Well, you were wrong, Michael,” Bzdok said. “It’s cooler than it ever was.”

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