By SIMON HOUPT
Thursday, September 20, 2018
A couple of weeks ago, as Michael Moore took the stage of the Ryerson Theatre on opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival to introduce his latest documentary, the anti-Trump battle cry Fahrenheit 11/9, he reached back in time in hopes of changing the future.
When he started production on the film, he explained to the audience, he had told his crew that they should imagine themselves in the French Resistance, "when the tanks were 40 miles outside of Paris."
That might not have been the best parallel to invoke - Paris fell shortly thereafter, of course, and it took another four years to throw off the Nazi occupation - but then, Moore has always had something of a fetish for beautiful losers who refuse to give up. "The sense of urgency for what we're all going through, what we wanted to do with this film, was profound," he said. And then he read a quote from someone in the Resistance, which fell with a thud because of his mangled French pronunciation.
A couple of days later, slumped in a chair at Azure Restaurant in Toronto's Intercontinental Hotel - he'd been up until 3 a.m. fixing some final technical issues with the film - Moore takes out his phone to read the quote again, this time in English. "'The writer has to die to give birth to the intellectual, in service of the wretched of the Earth,' " he declares. (Later research determines it is by JeanPaul Sartre.)
Moore interprets the quote to mean that those who normally stand on the sidelines must, when the need becomes urgent, finally take action. "You're a journalist," he begins. "If the tanks were 20 miles outside of Toronto, for a while at least you'd have to set aside the job of, 'Well, I'm just reporting both sides.' " He adopts a mock TV reporter's calm and neutral tone: " 'The Americans have invaded Canada.' " "The intellectual, the brain that you have, has to take over and immediately begin doing your service and your duty to your fellow Canadians - the downtrodden, the poor, and those without a voice." In Fahrenheit 11/9 (the title is both a play on his most successful film, the Palme d'Or-winning anti-George W. Bush screed, Fahrenheit 9/11, and a nod to the day in 2016 that Donald Trump was declared president-elect) Moore gives voice to those on the margins of America's political system who are beginning to assert their rights. He profiles teachers striking for a living wage, whistleblowers who raised the alarm on lead in the water supply of Flint, Mich., a clutch of neophyte politicians inspired to run for office by Trump's disastrous presidency, and the students of Parkland, Fla., who responded to last February's massacre at their school by sparking a new political movement.
Moore says that, for him, there has never been much daylight between those hypothetical roles of writer and intellectual in that Sartre quote. "I'm a filmmaker, and I also am trying to do things to make it better in the United States," he explains.
He laments that interviewers usually want to talk about about his films' politics rather than their craft. "When I am asked to come and speak to film classes, I tell the students - especially those who want to make" - air quotes - "'political films': Don't put the politics ahead of the art. Put the art first.
You put the politics ahead of the art, if you make that the most important thing - 'We must say this!' - umm, you're not going to be effective." He adds: "I know it's hard for some political people to hear that. But I knew it with my first film."
This is the point in the encounter - and it occurs regularly with him - when Moore will remind you of his origin story, and Roger & Me, which lit up the festival in 1989. "I don't know if you remember the [attacks] I took from the old guard of the documentary community, from the press, because I decided to make a different kind of documentary. And some people were just offended because there was humour in it, because then I wasn't taking my subject 'seriously.' " Shades, again, of Moore as the heroic Resistance figure: In his telling, critics are simply sour figures of the (political or filmmaking) establishment jealously defending their turf. But people didn't just object to the humour in Roger & Me; they had issues with its chronology and elision of facts.
Critics may also find similar problems with Fahrenheit 11/9, but there are two striking elements in the new film which may disturb some long-time fans: Moore ascribes some blame for Trump's rise to former U.S. president Barack Obama's frequent compromises. (In one devastating scene, Obama jets in on Air Force One to Flint amid the water crisis - and proceeds to play down the problem, even taking a tiny sip of water from a glass.) And though he admires the wave of new activists he profiles, he acknowledges they may fail.
Given that people had so much hope for Obama, how does he convince them that things will be different this time around, with progressive candidates such as New York's Alexandria OcasioCortez? "I'm not sure it is," he admits. "I don't feel that way. And that's why I refuse in the film to give any sort of false hope."
Still, there are laughs, because as Moore notes, you need to wrap your politics in an entertaining package. One of the film's most bananas claim is that Trump's announcement of a presidential run in June, 2015, was actually a PR stunt designed to demonstrate his popularity to NBC. It all began, Moore claims, because Trump had found out the network had offered Gwen Stefani more money to star on The Voice than they were paying him.
What proof does Moore have?
"I can't say how I know," he responds. "I'm trading in 30 years of telling you the truth. There's no way, no matter how funny the moment is, that I would put that in the film unless I knew." He adds: "I will trust the common sense of the people hearing this: Could Donald Trump have been upset that someone was making more money than him? Could Donald Trump have been upset that a woman was making more money than him?" It certainly has the ring of truth.
And then Moore adds this tidbit: "You know he's one of the biggest leakers in New York."
Fahrenheit 11/9 opens in theatres across Canada on Sept. 21.
Michael Moore speaks to media at the world premiere of Fahrenheit 11/9 at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 6.