Directed by Michael Moore
USA | 110 minutes | World Premiere
FRI | SEP 18 12:00 PM | Ryerson
SUN | SEP 20 6:00 PM | Ryerson
There was a strange quiet this morning at the Scotiabank Theater where, running a bit late, I expected to find the usual mob of bustling industry and press types milling about bleary eyed – just past the half-way point of the festival – guzzling coffee and getting in queue for their next films. But there was virtually no one in sight. That’s because they were all in the press screening for Michael Moore’s latest doc, Where to Invade Next. That’s the type of attention Moore commands from a global cadre of film critics, buyers and producers.
Moore’s follow up to Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) is certainly not the best film at the festival and probably not the most well crafted documentary running in the TIFF DOCS section, but it may be the film with the biggest ideas and import for today’s society. However we may feel about the director, there are some undeniable truths presented in this film. Moore takes the stage, front and center, in this globetrotting doc about successful social reform, wielding plenty of charisma. His mischievousness both in front of and behind the camera is utterly compelling. The film is just so chock full of moving, affective imagery and great ideas that it may turn out to be his most successful film since Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).
After beginning with a montage enumerating the various wars the United States has participated in and lost, i.e. Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan and Iraq which hardly look like victories, Moore introduces the humorous conceit of travelling the world to invade, plunder and rob from the most prospering nations. But he is not toppling dictators or looting natural resources, but rather claiming countries that have introduced novel ideas and social reforms that are putting America’s perhaps false concept of progress to shame.
Granted, Moore has been accused of sloppy filmmaking and employing plenty of rhetoric, selective sampling of data and heaps of good ole liberal fervor and righteousness, in the presentation of information. This film will certainly not satisfy critics of the filmmaker’s approach but there’s a lot that is compelling. So here’s a little survey of some of the booty Moore returns with from his global crusade.
Moore’s first stop is Italy where he interviews a few families, the executives at Lardi, one of the most prominent clothing manufacturers in the country (their clients include Burberry and Dolce & Gabbana), as well as the owner and employees at Ducati motorcycle. Workers in Italy receive at least five, and up to eight, weeks of paid vacation and pregnant women are granted five months of paid leave so that they don’t miss out on the most important moments of their children’s lives. Moore observes that Italians all seem so unstressed and relaxed, as if they’ve “just had great sex,” and the testimonies of happy smiling factory line workers may not amount to a ton of objective evidence but make for some pretty humorous screen time. When the director claims that most Italians take two hour lunch breaks laughter erupts in the audience as some Italian visitors to the fest humorously protest: “Not true! Not true!!” Moore ends this first segment by planting the American flag in the Ducati factory, claiming for the US, its concern and human treatment of workers to which the owner replies, “My pleasure.”
The director’s next stop is France. In Normandy, Moore films the chef and cafeteria staff in a primary school kitchen carefully designing the students’ menu which includes a mandatory cheese course between entrees of roasted vegetables, lean meats and desert. A battery of nutritional guidelines are outlined and followed and the students’ drink fresh water, not pop. The cute little kids don’t know how to react when Moore impishly produces and pores a coke for them to drink. They look at this alien object with bewildered eyes. He then shows the French children samplings of typical U.S. cafeteria meals comprising processed mystery meats and glutinous fried sludge, which they have trouble even recognizing it as food. The chef almost gets teary eyed with pity for American children who are served up such slop on on a daily basis. And so Moore claims this idea for America as well.
All of these examples are amusing and presented with brio and supporting factoids, but they may appear a little light. Much more compelling, however, is Moore’s examination of the penal system in Norway where recidivism rates are twenty percent, compared to America’s eighty percent. Moore contrasts how prisoners in Norway are given access to education, voting rights and political participation and get along harmoniously with the prison staff who they view, in the words of one murderer, as “there to help us.”
These scenes are then contrasted with the degrading and inhumane violence enacted on black bodies in America. Prison guards yell “Crawl you animal!! Crawl!!!” as we witness black inmates (most in jail for petty drug offences) writhing naked across prison floors while they are beaten viciously and repeatedly by the guards. Naked black men are shown subjected to the most obscene violence both within prisons and without. I could see these images brought many in the audience, even the most blasé film critics, to tears. Moore plants his flag and takes possession of Norway’s humane and progressive treatment of its prisoners.
Equally fascinating as a topic of invasion and social reform is Moore’s examination of Portugal’s decriminalization of all drugs. At one point he sits in front of a group of police officers pretending to possess cocaine and heroin. The cops don’t even blink. In a tremendously moving show of solidarity with their counterparts abroad, they plead, “To the police of America we urge the abolition of the death penalty.” They assert that human dignity, being the backbone of society, can never exist where the death penalty is enforced, and that drug crimes being non-existent have also contributed to a decrease in drug use. Moore contrasts that tax money, used to build mega-prisons that essentially traumatize prisoners releasing them into society with even worse drug problems in the U.S., is put to better use in Portugal to finance drug treatment centers. The numbers here, as with Norway’s lower recidivism rates, are highly compelling. The congruence of the intensification of America’s ‘war on drugs’ occurring at the same historical time the Civil Rights movement took hold, is used to suggest that slavery was simply institutionalized through the penal system. This controversial argument is further supported as we learn of the many corporations who use cheap prison labor, including Toys R Us and Microsoft.
Moore conquers and brings back much more social loot to his home country: Slovenia’s free college and University education (even for foreign students), the common corporate practice in Germany of having half of a company’s board made up of actual workers, Finland’s successful prosecution and imprisonment of over eighty bankers responsible for the savings and loan crisis, in stark contrast to America where only one was ever even prosecuted. All of this is presented with a good dash of humor, despite the very grave subject matter. Moore keeps the pace brisk and the film delivers something like a ‘greatest hits’ of his most important ideas. These are topics that the director plumbs with more depth in his other docs. And he uses the fairly transparent principle of juxtaposition and contrast of images and footage to advance his argument with canny cinematic rhetoric. The film results an overall ideological summation of what the rest of the world, outside of the US that is, think about a number of truly important social issues.