Speaking to the documentary filmmaker about how he predicted the rise of Trump, and his 15 year career of holding truth to power
Fifteen years ago, Michael Moore predicted the rise of fake news. “We like non-fiction, but we live in fictitious times,” said the American documentary filmmaker and professional rabble-rouser, on stage at the 2003 Oscars and accepting the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film for his Bowling for Colombine. “We live in a time where we have fictitious election results, that elect a fictitious president. We have a man sending us to war for ficititious reasons.” If you watch the clip, you’ll notice celebrities like Harrison Ford and Denzel Washington sitting front row, their faces incredulous. There’s a distinct lack of celebratory applause. In fact, the opposite occurs: there are strongly audible boos. The Oscars theme tune cuts off Moore’s speech, and he’s played off stage.
In 2018, Dazed meets Moore on a drizzly Sunday evening in London’s glitzy Mayfair, just before the UK premiere of his new film Fahrenheit 11/9. Sprawling and passionately argued, it takes on the impossible question of how exactly America ended up with a president like Donald Trump. Though at times it is typically tongue-in-cheek – beginning with a conspiracy theory that implicates the popstar Gwen Stefani in Trump’s rise – there’s fire and grit in the stretches of the film that take place in Flint, Michigan, where Moore is from. Like his first feature Roger & Me (1989), it’s a fierce critique of establishment politics that uses his hometown to examine the government’s big-picture failings. A sickening, bluntly effective scene that shows former president Barack Obama taking a sip from a glass of polluted Flint water is used to make the point that the Democrats alienated their own supporters, with Moore suggesting this publicity stunt impacted the community’s voting habits. In this film, liberals are to blame for Trump, too.
When we meet, I mention that I recently rewatched the Bowling for Colombine speech, finding the commotion it caused almost funny in retrospect. “You’re on the third stage of the five stages of grief – you’re on laughter,” he says drily of my response to the speech. “If it happened now, Denzel Washington would come out and start clapping with Meryl Streep. They would lift me on their shoulders and carry me off like a hero. Back then, it was different. Someone had to speak out. It was the time of (George W.) Bush. I knew I would probably get what I got. What choice did I have?”
We discussed the difference between journalism and documentary, the importance of action, and why he made a film for the people who are supposed to be on his side. “It’s sad to come here to a version of what somebody thought was a version of those New York boutique hotels,” he said, of the London hotel we sat down to chat in. “I always hate when I see things in Britain trying to aspire to or mimic things that they think are hip about America.”
You could say that, like the hotels, Theresa May is adopting aspects of Trump’s model. But that’s not hip, so the analogy doesn’t really work.
Michael Moore: Well, the hip part doesn’t work. What does work is that you (Britain) have, for some time, been allowing your leaders to snip away the social safety net. You’ve allowed for some private insurance. And once you opened that door, it was the door to hell. Your National Health Service is going be ruined by these people. What’s going on now with Brexit and your National Health Service... It’s sad to watch. And it was Tony fricking Blair... the liberal that helps pave the role for the right-wing.
You make this argument in Fahrenheit 11/9, suggesting that Barack Obama’s behaviour in Flint paved the way for low voter turn-outs from people who would usually vote Democrat.
Michael Moore: I love Obama and I voted for him twice. But as a filmmaker, I have to tell the truth.
Were you setting out to implicate yourself and other liberals?
Michael Moore: Yeah, I think so. I put myself in there. I was told to go easy on (Donald Trump), on (The Roseanne Show) back in 1998. His son-in-law (Jared Kushner) put on the premiere of one of my films (Sicko) back in 2007. I think we are all guilty on some level.
Why make a film for the people who are already on your side?
Michael Moore: They may be on my side verbally, but that doesn’t cut it. We need action. We need people to get up and get involved. We have millions of people who don’t vote. Everyone has someone in their family who doesn’t vote. We need to convince them to vote. We need to give them a reason to vote. The work has to be done on our side. I have no interest in trying to change people who voted for Trump. They’re are hopeless and lost.
You’ve been doing this work for 30 years. Has your approach in trying to get people to listen to you changed over time?
Michael Moore: This film is very blunt. I’ve just changed my Twitter profile; the bio now says: “Critics have called it brilliant and a masterpiece, but my new film Fahrenheit 11/9 is a bitter fucking pill to swallow. It’s my wake-up call to save my country.” That is an honest statement. It is a hard film. You’re not going to get the things you see on CNN, on the BBC. You’re not going to see it anywhere else. I’m going to show you things about this country that you don’t know.
Given that you started your career as a newspaper reporter, do you feel that documentaries can do something that journalism can’t?
Michael Moore: Yes. With this film, we made the decision that we weren’t going to watch the news everyday. So we didn’t pay attention to what was going on. Every day there would be some crazy thing – you know, the movie would never end.
Things were pretty bad before Trump. They were bad not because he made them bad. When we get rid of Trump, there are still going to be bad things happening. But there’s a larger picture to look at, too. I think that’s what a documentary can do (as opposed to journalism). It can take that larger view.
“Young people are going to save us. They’re not as cynical as their parents are at this point. Young people, women, people of colour have to lead” – Michael Moore
The news can function as a distraction.
Michael Moore: Trump’s the man with the shiny keys. He’s making us, his little babies, turn our heads over here (via the chaotic news cycle) so we don’t pay any attention to what’s going on over there.
Do you see yourself as an activist or filmmaker first?
Michael Moore: I’m a filmmaker, a writer. I’m a person who works in cinema. If you live in a democracy, it implies that you’re an activist. If we are not active, it ceases to be a democracy. So, to call someone who lives in a democracy an ‘activist’ is a redundant term – or it should be a redundant term.
What’s your departing manifesto for young Americans?
Michael Moore: I want everyone out of the house on November 6. Online, I keep posting “remember, remember the sixth of November”. Yes, it is catchy. Most people don’t know that I’m stealing it from the British event (November 5 – Guy Fawkes Day).
If I include that, readers might twig.
Michael Moore: Yeah, put that in.
Young people are going to save us. They’re not as cynical as their parents are at this point. Young people, women, people of colour have to lead. They make up 70% of the population now. They need to get out, vote and lead. Get involved. Understand the white power structure wants to make it hard for you to vote. You gotta work hard. You gotta persist.
Get this country out of the hands of the uber-wealthy, who have nothing in mind than to become more wealthy at your expense. Take take this world to the place where it needs to be.
Fahrenheit 11/9 is out in UK cinemas now