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Monday, July 12, 2004

A Documentary and Moore 

I'm listening to a BBC interview with Michael Moore. You can't watch his new film, Fahrenheit 9/11 without wanting to ask Moore some pointed questions: Why depict pre-war Iraq in idyllic terms? What is the Bush/Saudi connection (admittedly important to know) supposed to have with the war in Iraq? Couldn't any president be made to look silly and stupid if you dig up footage not meant for public display and show only that? Moore is making himself widely available to the press to answer such questions, though so far I can't find any substantial interviews on the web. I heard an excellent one last night on the Charlie Rose show on PBS. Moore was extremely forthright and persuasive.

But there are interesting questions about what genre of film Fahrenheit 9/11 belongs to. Is it a documentary? Why does the question matter? Would it be automatically less valuable or less reputable if it is not a documentary? Well, in any case, I think it plainly is a documentary.

Some say it is not really a documentary because it makes no pretense of offering both sides of the question. That won't work as a criterion for documentaries, though. Documentaries often have a point of view, airing the other side of the argument in order to be more persuasive. Erroll Morris's The Thin Blue Line builds a case for its thesis, including fictional reenactments of events, as the director believes they happened. Hoop Dreams builds a powerful impression, not exactly an argument, meant to make us uneasy about the lure of big-time basketball among poor black teenagers. These films don't try to present both sides equally.

Can documentaries be funny? Trekkies is a documentary, and is very funny. Are Moore's films better lumped with the so-called "Mockumentaries?" Obviously, not, since those films, such as This Is Spinal Tap do not purport to present any facts. They are pretend documentaries. Moore's films are nothing like that.

One thing Moore's films are not is journalistic reporting. Some documentaries are. The fantastic series Frontline on PBS airs documentaries, often with sharp and unbalanced points of view, but with an emphasis on investigative journalism. It is a common mistake to think that journalism ought to be balanced, objective, or neutral. Some journalism is like that, reporting the time and date of a robbery, or reporting the latest unemployment figures. But tons of journalism is not like that. There is nothing unjournalistic about putting together facts and quotations in support of the hypothesis that the president has, say, tried to cover up a criminal break-in of the opposing political party's offices, as in the legendary Watergate reporting.

So having a strong point of view is not what makes Moore's films different from journalism. It is that the techniques employed go well beyond the presentation of facts and arguments. Moore says it is like an Op Ed piece, but it is even less journalistic than that. The closest analogy between Fahrenheit 9/11 and some form of journalism would be the analogy with political cartoons. There is a long tradition in newspapers of brutal and hilarious satire of political figures in cartoons, often with a political point of view, and based more or less indirectly on the facts. The renderings of the people involved are often at least as vicious and funny as Moore's.

Moore has said he is a satirist, and that term resonates with the tradition of political cartooning. But it is too dismissive at the same time. The Onion is satire, as is the work of Mark Russell, but Michael Moore is doing something of more political importance than that sort of thing.

Some people have compared Moore to Rush Limbaugh, but the analogy seems to me very weak. Limbaugh presents himself as a pundit, with no evident effort to be funny. He claims to present the facts and answer all the liberal arguments, and so he needs to be judged by a different standard. (The quality of his facts and arguments is so weak, that I find him to be worthless at every level.) Moore's films are nothing like that. Al Franken is a sort of mix of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore. He's extremely funny, like Moore can be, but he also addresses himself to all sorts of arguments and objections from the other political side, something Moore's films do not purport to do.

Why are we hearing so much of "it's not really a documentary?" The suggestion seems to be that it presents itself as some kind of journalism, but it is really just a one-sided piece of persuasion. That would be a serious criticism. If an purportedly investigative piece on, say, the origins of the war in Iraq, failed (as Moore's film does) even to mention Iraq's repeated failure to comply with U.N. resolutions, or Saddam's sickening butchery of political opponents. But Moore's film could never mislead anyone about its intentions.

It is another matter if it makes false factual claims. There is some dispute about this, but I have not so far seen any successful indictment of any of the film's facts. Michael Moore's webpage meticulously documents a large number of the movie's claims. It also matters if it is highly misleading, even if not factually inaccurate. This is trickier. Is it misleading, as many critics claim, to show only happy scenes from pre-war Iraq? I suppose that depends on whether any viewer might think that Moore is seriously suggesting that pre-war Iraq was largely a happy and care-free place.This would be a ridiculous interpretation of Moore's intentions. In the BBC interview he said that everyone knows the sad facts about life under Saddam. But at the same time, there really were kids flying kites, young people getting married, and lots of other innocent things going on. Why put them in the film? Because U.S. bombs have killed hundreds or thousands of these innocent people, often without succeeding in any military aim. Many of the kite-flyers and young lovers are now dead or maimed, not by Saddam, but by America. Does he mean that this simple facts settles all the questions? Surely he doesn't. But have these uncomfortable facts been largely missing from Americans' thinking about the war? Yes, they have been. Until now.

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