July 19, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11: The temperature at which Moore burns

By: Alvino-Mario Fantini

Michael Moore is a reprehensible human being. This is not because he has made a new film criticizing the Bush administration, or because in previous films he went after (alleged) corporate wrong-doers. These activities are usually healthy and welcome. Moore is loathsome because, like a cheap huckster, he tries to pull a fast one on us, distorting information, misleading viewers, and acting like a propagandist.

Moore is notorious for making sloppy documentaries that leave out crucial bits of information, delete critical scenes, and take words and comments out of context. He crudely manipulates film to get his ideological point across. His whole approach to documentary filmmaking is dishonest and despicable.

Christopher Hitchens, certainly no apologist for the Bush administration, wrote recently about Moore’s filmmaking in an article for Slate: “[I]f you leave out absolutely everything that might give your ‘narrative’ a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don’t even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit … then you have betrayed your craft.”

This is Moore’s singular accomplishment. The very title of his new movie–Fahrenheit 9/11–speaks to Moore’s dishonest character. The movie’s title is a takeoff on science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic, Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which books burn). Moore never asked Bradbury for permission to use and modify the book’s title. While titles aren’t subject to copyright, Moore avoided Bradbury when the author approached him. Bradbury’s calls to Moore’s office have remained unreturned and the 94-year-old recently told a European daily that he considers Moore a “horrible human being.”

I myself see Moore as one of the horrible father figures of the burgeoning field of guerrilla filmmaking. Each year, at any of a number of events, one sees dozens of anti-globalization activists walking among their comrades, armed with digital video recorders and aspiring to be the next Michael Moore. Each year, there are workshops and training sessions around the world sponsored by different left-wing groups. Each year, another documentary goes on the independent film circuit.

Moore is breeding not creative investigative journalists, or even advocacy journalists, but rather future generations of propagandists and image manipulators. (Leni Riefenstahl: call your office!)

The danger with Moore and his minions is that like the information often found on the Internet, a lot of the material they produce doesn’t have much integrity. Much of it is extremist and shrill. All of it is simplistic and under-researched. Ken Burns is a model documentary filmmaker; Michael Moore is just a purveyor of shlock.

Another danger is that one can easily, unwittingly become part of one of these documentaries. Since the new documentary filmmakers, like Moore, lack any integrity, they are not loath to using ill-gotten footage. For example, I was astounded to learn a few months ago that while working for a corporation in Latin America last year, I was secretly filmed while on a coffee break making off-hand comments about American foreign policy to a friend. Incredibly, my comments later appeared in an anti-globalization propaganda film now being circulated. You can imagine my shock and surprise.

I think this way of making documentary films is totally unethical, probably immoral, and certainly unfortunate. It has forced me to watch my every word, especially if there are strangers milling about. It has created a reluctance on my part to speak openly. It is really a kind of censorship.

It is interesting to note in closing that Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was more a social criticism of the dangers of censorship than a traditional science fiction tale. I think Moore’s title tried to convey this idea of an oppressive government doing “irreparable damage to society by limiting the creativity and freedom of its people.”

But aren’t documentary filmmakers contributing to censorship as well? With people like Moore running around with digital video recorders looking for a sensational sound bite and an easy score, isn’t it only natural that we become a bit more reticent to talk openly and honestly about important subjects? With Moore and others selectively using information, catching people by surprise, and secretly recording people, aren’t they proving themselves to be no better than your crudest propagandist or your lewdest paparazzo? How do films like Moore’s contribute meaningfully to our national discourse on the direction of the economy, the politics of our administration, or the role of the United States in the world?

I’d like to quote again Christopher Hitchens, who I think best described Moore’s new film:

“To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of ‘dissenting’ bravery.”

Moore’s film may have been awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes recently. But that doesn’t mean we have to praise it. I hope we can see past the hype and see Moore for what he truly is: a hustler, a liar, and a cheat. I can’t imagine how anyone, no matter how much he or she disagrees with the Bush administration, can really admire a filmmaker like Moore. He is a shlock-master.

Alvino-Mario Fantini is a 2003 Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in Bolivia as a correspondent for Bridge News, CNN, and as a consultant.