Michael Moore, meet Charles Ferguson
Documentaries should encourage critical thinking through education, not manipulation
When George W. Bush won his re-election campaign in 2004, Michael Moore was upset.
After mounting a years-long campaign against W., which included producing the highest-earning documentary of all time (Fahrenheit 9/11) and giving one of the most politically-charged acceptance speeches in Academy Award history, it seemed the man had failed.
Bush won resoundingly, taking 51 per cent of the popular vote.
But if there’s one thing you can say about Moore, it’s that he doesn’t quit.
After that election, he stated that “51 per cent of the American people lacked information, and we want to educate and enlighten them.”
For Moore, the problem was the majority of American people being uneducated, and thus democratically making the wrong choice.
Unfortunately, education is missing from many of Moore’s documentary films.
Not long ago, I was flipping through channels when I ran across Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore’s latest opus, in which he attempts to tackle the financial meltdown of 2008.
I decided to watch it until I felt the urge to turn it off, which came about 25 minutes in, as Moore was in the midst of yet another ham-fisted attempt at speaking with the president of General Motors (which he seems to do in every movie).
He doesn’t make it past the outside steps of the building before being escorted off the premises by security. Shock.
Moore’s been doing his “outsider” song and dance for over two decades, so you can bet he’s got it down by now.
In his films, he’s always running up to people in business suits on the street, getting told off, going to corporate headquarters only to be turned away.
Eventually, he goes back to talking with “real Americans” (the poor ones), who seem to be the only ones who can stand being around him.
Here’s what I don’t understand: if the expressed purpose of his films are education, why does he spend all his time talking to the people who know the least about what’s actually going on?
Instead of wasting countless rolls of film on him running around and getting rejected, why doesn’t he just talk to the right people?
Oh, right, I forgot; no one wants to talk to him because they’re horrible, greedy elitists who hate the “average” American, who is apparently represented by Moore himself.
In 2007, a new documentary filmmaker emerged. His name was Charles Ferguson and he made his documentaries a little differently.
Though he tackled many of the same issues as Moore, his way of approaching things was decidedly unique.
With his debut feature, an Iraq exposé titled No End In Sight, instead of spending his time collecting footage of Bush gaffes and weeping war mothers, he decided to interview the people in charge, the people who knew what was actually happened.
Instead of trying to get Republican senators and congressmen to sign their kids up for the army, Ferguson spent his time doing actual research about Iraq.
When he was finished with it, what he had created was a Master’s course on the Iraq war, and a devastating exposé on bureaucratic incompetence.
As a follow up, Ferguson decided to tackle the financial crisis with his Oscar-winning doc Inside Job, in which he takes an approach similar to the one he took in his previous film.
He emerged with much the same result, creating another educational tool for explaining a very divisive and complicated issue, taking all sides of the story and creating a textbook of a film.
The difference between Moore and Ferguson comes down to how they view their audience.
Their politics are likely quite similar, but their approach is disparate.
Moore has always complained about the Republican Party’s lack of respect for middle-America and their manipulative tactics for swaying the under-educated masses.
But he is guilty of the same crime. He doesn’t respect his audience, or their ability to think critically, and uses emotionally manipulative tactics in an attempt to sway viewers to his way of thinking.
Ferguson respects his audience enough to educate them, encouraging them to criticize and question the ideas being presented.
Emotional manipulation, distraction and misinformation have become so commonplace in America over the past few decades that it’s hard to imagine the country without them.
Moore blames the Republicans, the Republicans blame Moore, and around and around it goes.
Until both sides decide to inform and educate, rather than manipulate, there will be no moving forward.
Sam Hagenlocher still thinks Exit Through The Gift Shop should have won.
Published in Volume 65, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 10, 2011)