In the late '80s, Michael Moore made a film about the disruption of life in Flint, Michigan, after General Motors plant closings resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs. Called Roger & Me, the centerpiece of the film is Moore's dogged efforts, largely unsuccessful, to interview General Motors CEO Roger Smith about how his decision has crippled Flint.
In 2004, Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk, self-professed admirers of Moore, set out to make a biography of the man who had, in the intervening years, enjoyed critical and commercial success with documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. In the course of making their film, Caine and Melnyk came up against a vision of Moore very different from the one they had presumed to be true. Called Manufacturing Dissent, the centerpiece of their film is Caine and Melynk's long-suffering and largely unsuccessful efforts to interview Moore.
Caine and Melnyk will be appearing at the Indie Memphis Film Festival this week to take questions after their film screens.
Manufacturing Dissent first shows Moore at the 2003 Academy Awards ceremony, where he famously said, in his Oscar acceptance speech, "Shame on you, Mr. Bush" amid a chorus of boos and applause. Inspired by Moore's candor, Caine and Melnyk hit the road from their Toronto home base to recount Moore's life. The filmmakers were in Michigan and on Moore's trail for two and a half years. When Moore went on his college campus "Slacker Uprising Tour" leading up to the 2004 presidential election, Caine and Melnyk were on his heels and taping every minute of it. What started idyllic and warm soured soon enough. Manufacturing Dissent shows their requests for interviews with Moore, continued rebuffs, and increasing hostility from his staff, including getting unplugged from the soundboard at Wayne State University and getting booted by Moore's sister and security backup from a Kent State appearance.
There's a second film in Manufacturing Dissent, which is a kind of sequel to Roger & Me, in which the filmmakers go back to Flint and set the record straight, chronicling the aftermath of Moore's filmic dirty bomb.
However, Caine and Melynk don't stray from their original concept, a Moore biography. Moore the class clown, the alternative newspaper publisher, the Mother Jones editor, the Ralph Nader associate, and the budding filmmaker all provide little details in defining the man so many are eager to love or hate. On the subject of his activism in Flint, the film asks: Did Moore bring international attention to the plight of the people, or did he co-opt their movement for his own benefit?
Like anything else, it all depends on whom you're asking. Caine and Melynk did a lot of asking, and the answers they got (from those who agreed to the interview) vary from descriptions of Moore as megalomaniacal and paranoid — this from a friend of Moore's — to accusations that he, in essence, squelched any hope communities like Flint had to fight back against the GMs of the world. "We're not savvy investigative reporters here," Caine says. "We had stumbled upon these things."
Moore has posed problems for purist documentarians, his films challenging the very definition of what a documentary is. Manufacturing Dissent has two of the most famous doc filmmakers — Albert Maysles and Errol Morris — on the record about Moore. Herself on the record, Melnyk says, "Michael as a documentarian is very entertaining, but I wish he would be more honest with his facts and I wish he wouldn't mislead people with his films. ... As a documentarian, I don't believe you should make up scenes and put them in your film. That's fine for fiction, but not for documentaries."
Not that any of this was easy for liberals Caine and Melnyk, mind you. "It was hard," Melnyk says. "We feel like Michael's done good for the left. But at the same time, are we going to just ignore what we found out? For me, it's always been important to tell the truth and say whatever it is you find out, good or bad."