Editor’s note: Robert Struckman, a Billings native who previously worked as a reporter in Missoula and Billings, now lives in Maryland with his wife and two children and is the speech and editorial writer at the AFL-CIO. He recently interviewed filmmaker Michael Moore and is allowing Last Best News to reprint the email exchange here:
Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore had visited people at the AFL-CIO office in Washington, D.C., but I hadn’t had a chance to talk to him. Everyone who did talk to him said he was “surprisingly nice,” which I thought was kind of funny. He does have an “angry liberal” persona in his films, but isn’t the criticism of him just another tool of those who want to discredit humanism?
Anyway, when I reached Moore, he was recovering from a bout of pneumonia. I hope he doesn’t mind my mentioning that. I had a chance to put some questions to him. Here’s how it went.
Robert Struckman: What was the first job you ever had? What was the best thing about it? What was the worst? What did you learn from it?
Michael Moore: My dad worked for AC Spark Plug for 35 years, and his father before him was a GM auto worker. My grandmother even worked for GM during the war. So I started on the assembly line at GM. I quit after 2 days.
The first job that lasted was as the youngest elected official in the U.S. I was 18, and I decided to run for school board on a platform of “Fire the Principal and Assistant Principal.” I won on that campaign platform, and within nine months, the principal and assistant principal turned in their resignations. I thought, Geez, this didn’t take long, and I’m still 18! You know? So I learned early on that you can affect change by just doing something.
RS: You made your first film at 35. What was your work before that? How does your pre-film life influence your documentary work?
MM: When I was 22, I founded an alternative newspaper in Flint, Michigan, called The Flint Voice. It was a true muckraking paper that didn’t care who it pissed off. I wanted to stay on top of General Motors, inform people what it was doing to Flint and to its workforce, and encourage people to think about other issues that were not being covered in the traditional news media. We documented how GM was taking tax-abatement money and using it to build factories in Mexico. And we were always challenging Roger Smith [former CEO of General Motors] to go bowling with us or something.
A few years after I left the Voice, I was laid off from a job editing a national magazine because I put an auto worker on the cover. I was home, unemployed, watching TV one day and Roger Smith came on and said he was laying off another 10,000 people in Flint. At that point he’d already laid off about 20,000. I just got mad, and while I didn’t know how to make a movie, I just felt like I’d seen enough movies and I would figure it out. And so I made “Roger & Me.”
RS: In your job as a filmmaker, some people have been critical of you and your documentary style. It might be fair to say some people have made a cottage industry and a pretty good living going after you. What have you learned from the criticism? Which critics have been the most fair? Which the least? How has your perspective changed over the years? Looking back, what are your three biggest take-aways?
MM: Here’s the thing. Cinema is art for the masses. Where else do you go to experience an emotional story, laugh, cry, and get angry with a bunch of strangers in a dark room? It’s a really powerful thing that is accessible to nearly everybody. And if you can move even one person in an audience to think or feel differently about something as important as health care, or guns, or the war on terror, I guess some people, especially those with power, feel threatened by that. I honestly can’t wait to see what Fox News says about my new film, “Where To Invade Next”!
RS: What advice would you give a young, would-be documentarian?
MM: Here are my top 3 rules:
Rule number one is, be a filmmaker, not a documentarian. If you want to make a political speech, join a party or hold a rally. If you want to give a sermon, go to the seminary, be a preacher. But if you want to be a filmmaker, to use the form of cinema, make a MOVIE. You can tell the truth, and make people laugh, and cry, at the same time.
Rule number two: Don’t tell me shit I already know. I don’t go to those kinds of documentaries, the ones that think I’m ignorant. Seriously, I don’t want to hear anything I already know. I don’t like watching a movie where the filmmakers obviously think they’re the first people to discover something might be wrong with genetically modified foods. You think that you’re the only one who knows that? Your failure to trust that there are actually quite a few smart people out there is the reason people are not going to come see your documentary.
Rule number three: Don’t lecture. I only went to three semesters to college, and one thing I’m grateful for from that is that I never learned how to write a college essay. I always hated school. It was nothing but regurgitation back to the teacher of something the teacher said, and then I have to remember it and write it back down on a piece of paper. The math problem was never a problem. Somebody else had already solved the problem and then put it in the math book. The chemistry experiment was not an experiment. Somebody else already did it, and now they’re making me do it, but still calling it an experiment. Nothing is an experiment here. I hated school and the nuns knew it, and they felt bad for me. I would just sit there bored and mad and it didn’t do me much good — except I ended up making these movies.
RS: Flint, Michigan, has been in the news lately for the most heart-breaking reasons. It has been almost 30 years since your documentary “Roger & Me” came out. What are your thoughts on Flint today?
MM: Flint is the town where the UAW was born. The great sit-down strike of 1936, 80 years ago, created, according to historians, the middle class. It was created because my uncle and others who were in that strike beat General Motors and created a middle class that didn’t exist. This was our gift to the world that working people could actually own a home, send the kids to college, have a car, get a vacation, see a doctor. And the city built General Motors into the world’s largest and richest corporation. In return for that, GM, beginning about 30 some years ago, started moving jobs out of Flint and moving them elsewhere, mostly to Third World countries but also to nonunion states down South and, in doing so, wrecked the lives and the livelihoods of the people who built that corporation. And that was the first blow. And it`s been one blow after another decade after decade now.
News of the latest crisis in Flint has now reached a wide audience around the world. What happened? The Republican governor, Rick Snyder, nullified the free elections in Flint, deposed the mayor and city council, then appointed his own man to run the city. To save money, they decided to unhook the people of Flint from their fresh water drinking source and, instead, make the public drink from the toxic Flint River. That’s right, poison water. We were drinking clean water in Flint since I was a kid. This water in Genesee County came from Lake Huron, a glacial lake that’s been there since the Ice Age. It’s the third-largest body of fresh water in the world. And the people of Flint had that clean water taken away and replaced by lead-contaminated water by the state. To save $15 million! It was easy. Suspend democracy. Cut taxes for the rich. Make the poor drink toxic river water. And everybody’s happy — except those who were poisoned in the process. All 102,000 of them. In the richest country in the world. Now, those 102,000 residents of Flint are fighting back.
RS: If you’d like me to ask anything regarding your newest work, I’d be glad to do so. Or I’d be glad to simply give you an opportunity to talk about it.
MM: With “Where To Invade Next,” I decided to make a film about the U.S., without shooting a single scene in the U.S. There is much anger simmering beneath the surface over the failure of our schools, the trillion dollars of student debt, the destruction of the middle class, the race-based prison-industrial complex and the fact that the majority gender still holds only 20 percent of the political and corporate power. An uprising is brewing over these and other issues. But other countries are doing a much better job, have found solutions to some of these problems, and so I figured, Why not invade them and steal something we really need? — Good ideas. I hope this film first and foremost delivers an entertaining cinematic experience for the audience, but then also helps ignite the peaceful rebellion I know so many of us would like to see happen.