Michael Moore Gets ‘Dangerous’ at Montclair Film Festival

Michael Moore Gets ‘Dangerous’ at Montclair Film FestivalAs an opening gambit for a film fest discussion about documentaries, “I hate documentaries” is on the provocative side. But it’s standard fare coming from director Michael Moore, who presided over Sunday evening’s “Dangerous Docs” event at the 2013 Montclair Film Festival.

Joining Moore on stage at the Montclair Art Museum were three documentarians whose work screened at the MFF: Lucy Walker (The Crash Reel), Bill Siegel (The Trials of Muhammad Ali) and Montclair-based Dawn Porter (Gideon’s Army). The event was modeled on the “Dangerous Docs” series that Moore hosts each year at his Traverse City Film Festival, and his guests shared the host’s predilection for calling on the audience to take a sometimes-difficult look at painful and/or dysfunctional aspects of society.

So the director of hot-button docs like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 framed the sold-out talk with the idea that most filmgoers don’t really want to see documentaries about tough subjects, asking: “Why are we bothering to do this?”

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“I have been feeling a little discouraged,” Walker admitted, noting that she has yet to make any money for even her most successful projects. But she and her fellow panelists all recounted experiences of seeing their films at festivals or other screenings and watching audience members become visibly moved and engaged.

And it was that idea of engagement that dominated the discussion. The filmmakers all agreed that films like theirs took on worthy subjects, but it was hard to turn a successful screening into real social action to, for example, improve the public-defender system shown in Porter’s film.

Moore wondered, “Maybe it’s enough that we just make the movies, and it’s up to [the audience] to do something.” Siegel disagreed, saying that filmmakers who travel with their films to festivals like the one in Montclair have an opportunity to foster engagement that can go beyond the film.

Porter says that meeting her audiences directly is how she knows the work of the documentarian is worthwhile: “There is clearly an audience that wants to talk about these issues,” she said, and suggested that the filmmaker has to put in the effort to curate their audience by reaching out to like-minded groups and activists in each place the film is screened.

Moore was quick to note that he continues to be optimistic about the power of documentaries (“I keep doing this and think it matters”), and announced that this week, he and a group of other documentary directors will be breaking ground on a new Manhattan movie theater on Lower Broadway that will be dedicated exclusively to screening non-fiction films.

At the end of the talk, Moore addressed the panel directly with his core advice for documentary filmmakers who want to build a larger and more engaged audience of American filmgoers, which is to focus on the latter part of their job description more than the former: “Don’t make a documentary,” he told them. “Make a movie.”

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Michael Moore still looks distinctly tank-like in that picture. So even if he’s eating only organic foods, it’s probably stuff like organic triple bacon cheeseburgers, peanut butter shakes with organic milk and cheesecake made with organic eggs and cream and berries.

    Hey, Mikey, try staying away from the catering trucks when shooting your, ah, “documentaries.” It’s much easier to be taken even half-seriously as a provocateur when one doesn’t resemble an advertisement for heart disease and adult-onset diabetes. (Even Rush Limbaugh eventually slimmed down successfully, after all.)

  2. Quote of the young week:

    “…. organic triple bacon cheeseburgers…”

    I hate most docs because so few seem to use the tools of film, and resemble more “newsy” fair. Ken Burns is an artist and storyteller who pushes the visual medium. Even “Searching for Sugarman” with it’s archival footage, iphone shots and photos used the visual medium.

    Sadly, too many “documentarians” employ poor lighting, bad sound, and NO visual style. Or their subjects are boring.

    And while I disagree with Mr. Moore on many political points, his films have style, use visuals (charts, animation, etc.), and HE is engaging. Far too many docs today, aren’t so lucky.

  3. Curious to what cathars’s dietary advice to Welles, Hitchcock would have been. “Hey, Hitch, Orson, try staying away from the oysters Rockefeller and baked Alaska at the Brown Derby and Romanoff’s.’ LOL

  4. “Michael Moore still looks distinctly tank-like in that picture.”
    Let’s run him for governor.

    “The only thing Mr. Limbaugh slimmed down was his brain.”
    You are making a dangerous assumption there, PAZ.
    Rim-shot!

    I’ll be in town all week, folks, and don’t forget to tip your waitresses and bartenders…

  5. ProfWilliams – I think someone should have given you a ticket to the panel, because you clearly have no idea what is involved in making a documentary.

    Yes, it is wonderful to use archive footage and images where you can spend 3 hours shooting a single photograph [and have tons of funding like Burns and Moore], but what if your subject is current and your funding is a credit card and 4 friends to help you out.

    I think if you attended some of the docs in the festival you would have been blown away by their stories, even those which had VHS camcorder footage.

    If you believe that the production values of a film are more important than the story or the subject, I fear that tells us more about you than anything else.

  6. Thanks so much PAZ, it’s like a song you can’t get out of your head; after the atrophy of tying half behind his back and the oxycodone damage, the image of Rush’s brain slimming down any further would be like calling this a healthy tan.

  7. Well stated newintown; strong characters and story/plot line fundamental to documentary filmmaking and invariable takes precedence over production values.

    Same can be said for cinema verite’. Early Cassavetes clear example of this, having shot his 1959 “Shadows” on shoestring budget of less that $40,000. Rossellini shot his 1945 “Roma Citta’ Aperta” in the streets of war torn Rome for practically nothing, using bits and pieces of disparate, confiscated film stock, and non-professional actors, save for Magnani.

    One can only hope the prof is only a viewer of film and not a teacher of.

  8. Hitchcock likely would have lived longer if he’d slimmed down, silverleaf. (Though I wonder how you seemingly know what he actually ate at the Brown Derby.) Properly slimmed down, he might even have have had some semblance of a romantic life with wife Alma, thus wouldn’t have supposedly come on so in desperation to the blonde actresses he hired.

    And Welles might not have taken so many of the terrible roles he took in (mostly European-made) jmovies if he hadn’t tried so hard to live the lifestyle of a complete sumptuary. He might even have finished “The Lady From Shanghai” properly if he hadn’t been so all-fired worried about where his next 20 Lucullan meals were coming from.

    Mikey Moore, alas, puports to be a “purer” sort of figure than those two gentlemen, someone of political commitment. His message would ring somewhat truer, I suggest, if he slimmed down.

    I also think, with the good prof, that production values matter for a great deal, even in documentaries. Technical crudity is hard to sit through. No matter the degree of commitment behind a documentary film. Samuel Fuller, for example, was a great “primitive” of a director, yes, but just about every one of his amazing movies was beautifuly shot, art directed and lit. No matter the small size of their budgets. (And some of those were also financed via their era’s equivalent to a black Amex card.)

    Really, too, how many of you would actually like to have to be seen in public with the waddly Michael Moore? Even if he picked up the check? Wouldn’t you worry just a bit if he was in the row immediately in front of you on a flight in coach?

  9. “Shock Corridor” being one of Fuller’s uh, masterpieces. As to being “bankable,” he was so unable to find financing here, he was forced go to Europe to do so, with several of his final films produced and shot there. To put him in same class as either OW or AH defines your knowledge of film.

    Insofar as what film directors Moore or Hitchcock consume(d) . . . organic triple bacon cheeseburgers, blondes, or otherwise, I couldn’t care less. I don’t define them in such terms. It was you who brought it up in an earlier post. I prefer to view their films.

  10. ProfWilliams – I think someone should have given you a ticket to the panel, because you clearly have no idea what is involved in making a documentary.

    Tee-hee. For what it’s worth, newintown, prof actually teaches this stuff to wide-eyed, tuition-paying young’uns.

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