“We could release this film again this Friday, sadly, and it would probably be every bit as relevant.” So noted Michael Moore, introducing his 2002 Oscar winner Bowling for Columbine at a special screening last night at the Tribeca Film Festival – marking the 15th anniversary of its release, on the date of the school shooting in Littleton, Colorado that inspired it. And he’s right; if anything, it’s more relevant in 2017. “When we made this movie mass shootings were very, very rare,” Moore noted. There have been 102 mass shootings so far this year – in 111 days.
But Bowling for Columbine also holds water because it is, quite simply, a great nonfiction film – Moore’s best, I’d argue. It spotlights his specific gift for bringing irreverence to serious subject matter, and then bringing it back (witness the “Happiness is a Warm Gun” montage, in which wacky news stories and images turn to horrifying televised violence). It includes the finest of his then-trademark ambush interviews, a designation that’s easy to make because it was one of the few that actually resulted in a big corporation taking action. And it features some of his wittiest writing and editing, using a multi-media mashup technique that blends old educational films, marketing/PR videos, TV news clips, commercials, home movies, old movies – and, most hauntingly, a montage of Columbine 911 calls and surveillance videos.
“When we went to the ratings board, they gave us an R rating for this film,” Moore told moderator (and legendary documentarian) D.A. Pennebaker. And the specific reason, they were told, was that security camera footage. “We don’t show anybody getting killed. But that would be too intense for teenagers to watch, it might inspire somebody to do something, and so they gave it an R rating. But I think – and I’ve said this before, and I catch a lot of grief for it, because I feel for, and I’ve met many of the parents at Sandy Hook – but I just gotta believe if America saw the carnage in that classroom… I don’t know. I mean, how many is it gonna take before we do something about this? If twenty six-year-olds is not enough for America to stop the NRA and get these laws passed, what if it was a hundred six-year-olds? Would that be enough? I just wonder what the limit is, where Americans would just leave the house, take to the streets, demand that Congress do this, and throw the bums out that don’t do it.”
From a filmmaking standpoint, what’s striking about Bowling for Columbine is how much of it features the kind of interviews he might have trouble getting now. Remember, he was not yet the boogie man of the still-emerging conservative media; his anti-Iraq War Oscar speech and Fahrenheit 9/11 still lie ahead. But when he wasn’t as well known, he could get members of the Michigan Militia, or James Nichols, or even Charlton Heston, all the way back to the neo-Nazis in the first film he worked on, Blood in the Face, to talk to him with their guard down. I asked if he thought his notoriety and celebrity had impeded him as a filmmaker; he didn’t quite agree.
“After this movie and Fahrenheit, the Bush voters in ’04, I had to have a lot of security,” he admitted. “There were various attempts on my being. In fact, I just posted yesterday on my Twitter – Bill O’Reilly is passing me by in a limo, sees me, tells the driver, he screeched to a halt. He jumps out of the limo yelling at me, and somebody happened to capture the picture of the moment. Look at O’Reilly’s face, it’s the scariest friggin’ thing. But y’know, I’m still standing and he’s not.”
But these days, he doesn’t feel that kind of heat and hate. “I get stopped practically every day by at least one Trump voter,” he said. “I mean, I’m his demographic! I look like a Trump voter! I’m a Midwesterner with a high school degree, a middle-aged white guy.”
So, as part of the demo, how does Moore think Trump’s seemingly impossible election happened? “The equation is simple,” he explained. “It’s the American equation. Dumb down the population, make them ignorant and stupid. Ignorance leads to fear. You’ve had four-year-olds? Daddy, daddy, there’s a monster in the closet! And when they think there’s a monster in the closet, what do you do? You go in there and you turn the light on in the closet, and you say look, there’s no monster in the closet. And they calm down. Why? Because they’re no longer ignorant, you’ve given them information.”
But fear permeates – a theme present, and explored in depth, in Bowling for Columbine. “We didn’t really make it as a gun control film,” Moore said. “We made it as a film to take a look at ourselves, because we were wondering why us? We’re good people. We’re a good country. Every one of us has the same 23 chromosomes. Canadians aren’t better than us… It’s hard to say that now, isn’t it… And so maybe we should take a look at why it happens here.”
And what they found was a culture of fear and rage, which often results in gun violence. “There is something uniquely American about it,” he admitted. “Politicians know how to manipulate that. We’re hours, weeks, months away from our own Reichstag fire. When that happens, I really encourage people not to get on board the fear train, the terrorist train, the war train, whatever Trump will do. There will, more than likely, be some kind of terrorist act in this country, and I fear that he will use that to an awful extent.”
Moore has made big predictions before – most memorably, his much pooh-poohed alarm siren that Trump would win (he did pause to gloat about that a bit; “There’s a bubble in Brooklyn, folks, and it’s toxic,” he insisted). So when an audience member asked when we could expect an impeachment, he was willing to offer that up too: “I would say sometime in the middle of his second term.”
All jokes aside, Moore thinks there is hope, which he finds in the marches and resistance he’s seeing throughout the country. As far as gun control goes, “I think now is the time. The majority of Americans are with us. And women are running it, and the more women are behind it and doing it, the better this gonna be – and young people.” And what, specifically, can young people do? “We need more hellraisers,” he grinned. “Young people that aren’t afraid. Aren’t afraid about, oh am I gonna get into the right college, am I gonna get the right job, because I’d better get the right job, because it’s gonna take 30 years to pay off this student loan… Just think about what you can do, in your school, your neighborhood, whatever, to raise a little hell, to stand up for the things that you believe. Don’t be afraid to lead.”
“Bowling for Columbine” is currently streaming via Tribeca’s Shortlist service. Photo credits: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire