The release of Michael Moore’s Sicko and Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine’s documentary about Moore, Manufacturing Dissent, gives rise to serious questions about the ethics and methods used by the most famous non- fiction filmmaker on the planet. Melnyk and Caine’s film methodically assembles a chronological list and litany of Michael Moore’s alleged transgressions, fabrications, speculations, infiltrations and editorial manipulations as he appears to take liberties with the ‘truth.’
During the marketing of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and the campaign to get out the youth vote in the 2004 US presidential election, Melnyk and Caine stalked Moore in much the same way he has obsessively followed such prey as Charlton Heston and GM’s Roger Smith. Ironically, Melnyk and Cain found it impossible to get an interview with Moore, a free speech champ whose handlers resemble pit bulls with walkie-talkies. Alarmingly, our stalwart duo were ejected from a rally while Moore addressed his cheering throngs of true believers.
Manufacturing Dissent gives rise to many questions posed by a cross-section of Moore’s friends and foes. Are his tactics driven by a paranoid megalomania? Is he, as Christopher Hitchens suggests, a carpenter using distortion as a tool? Does Moore prey upon his unquestioning fan base—caught up in his cult of personality — with a simplistic, milquetoast sense of political analysis? Or is he in the league of Mark Twain, Henry Thoreau and Noam Chomsky, taking the powerful to task, but with camera instead of pen? Could Moore truly be the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time, the holy roller of journalists?
I have a great deal of admiration for Michael Moore. We share a little in common. I make documentaries. For many of us, Michael Moore is a left-wing David, if not the Michael-angelic big white marble statue version in Florence, then a large working-class replica. In the Moore version of his myth, of course, Bush, Charlton Heston and Roger Smith play Goliath to his David.
Manufacturing Dissent highlights a number of anti- Moore films, books, websites and right-wing film festivals. The irony is that Moore’s work has led to his critics’ success. But Manufacturing Dissent, and the critical reaction to the “Al Gore” film, An Inconvenient Truth, point to deeper questions about the nature of information, journalistic truth and what constitutes a documentary. At one point in Manufacturing Dissent Moore declares that he doesn’t like documentaries and can’t stand public broadcasting. I’ve actually never heard him claim to be a documentary filmmaker, and I’ve sat on a panel with him.
Perhaps what his earnest critics don’t understand about Moore is that he aligns himself with the entertainment industry, not the factual tradition. He wants to use mainstream broadcasts and global wide film releases to insert politics into the political discourse. First and foremost, Moore is a media master, a zealous stand-up comedian, with a large circle of researchers, writers and producers who know how to fuse, rather than confuse, celebrity and polemics with fact.
Should all non-fiction filmmakers dedicate their souls to the saint of mass success? I think they should, but I get my advice from Faust. Why have recent political documentaries become the new blockbusters? Their filmmakers have learned to market reality in pop- culture ways.
What does the critique of Gore, Moore and other political non-fiction films say about documentary? In an age where notions of truth are at risk, where does the truth lie? What obligations do documentary makers have to facts that don’t fit into their own world view? We live in an increasingly conservative era where blowback dogs feed upon polemical filmmakers who attempt to use the techniques of artful moviemaking against vested interests. Where there was once a war of words, there is now a war of images.
In Le petit soldat, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard posited that, “Photography is truth. And cinema is truth, at 24 frames a second.” I believe that documentary films have more in common with the fluid truth of the essay, pamphlet or poetic polemic than with objective fact. Scientists themselves have a relative relationship to facts. If scientists cannot figure out what a fact is, how can we lowly filmmakers?
Perhaps it’s a case of buyer—viewer and reader— beware. From an early age, we should be taught to use our critical faculties. Let’s apply the same criteria in annotating and deconstructing An Inconvenient Truth or Manufacturing Dissent, as we do to Babel or Pan’s Labyrinth. Let’s all understand that any film, even a documentary, is as much of an argument and an artifice as the construction of this constructed sentence, which aims to examine its own construction.
In a world where absolutes are impossible, true impartiality is rarely the aim. There has never been a film in history that has not raised ethical questions. Are these successful new-style docs only emotional propaganda without balance? Or can they promote real social change and have educational value? The question of how documentaries deal with ethical criticism might determine whether documentaries will survive their own success.
The critique of the Moores and the Gores may just be Schadenfreud, that great German idea-word for ‘malicious pleasure, of wishing the worst upon the most successful.’ Has Moore painted himself into a caricature corner? Will he be forced to repeat himself on the media treadmill, on the conveyor belt of celebrity culture? Moore’s new target is the health management system in America. With the backlash from Moore’s dissenters, people are starting to question how this ‘documentarian’ packages his messages. When truth- tellers begin to use the same techniques as their opposition, shouldn’t audiences distrust the messenger? By setting up straw dogs and paper tigers, Moore may be shooting fish in a barrel and his own foot, at the same time. When audiences start to mush Moore and Gore together in their minds in the great celebrity side-show haze, how can one differentiate between the truth they dare to utter, the lies the US Administration generates, and the latest generation of a new soft drink?
The debate that documentaries engender by helping us to understand media manipulation is legitimate. The question remains, who owns the truth? The answer is that documentaries are essential to democracy. The questions that they provoke allow us to keep up our critical guard, our intellectual self-defense, as Chomsky calls it. When we do, we can rightfully call ourselves“docu-cratic”citizens.