CATEGORIES Documentary, Independent, New Releases, SXSW, Warner Brothers, Celebrities and Controversy, Michael Moore, Film Clips, Cinematical Indie, AFI Dallas, Trailers and Clips, Movie News, SXSW Film Festival, New Releases, CinematicalYeah, I know, this is light years old in internet time, but a couple days ago over on indieWIRE, John Pierson -- who, many moons ago, sold Michael Moore's groundbreaking documentary Roger & Me to Warner Brothers for the then-startling sum of $3 million or so -- published an open letter to Moore smacking him around for the controversy surrounding another doc, Manufacturing Dissent, directed by Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk --an unauthorized film about Moore and the making of Roger & Me.
Pierson, who teaches a class on producing a film at UT Austin (and who helmed exec-produced* a 2005 doc about himself called Reel Paradise, about the year he and his family spent living in a remote village in Fiji, where they operated a movie theater for the locals), takes Moore to task in his indieWIRE screed, telling the controversial director how angry and disappointed his producing students were when Pierson screened a working version of Manufacturing Dissent for them. They weren't upset with the quality of that film (which Jette Kernion reviewed for Cinematical during SXSW) -- rather, they were angry to learn from the film about some discrepancies in the way Moore presents the events that unfolded during the filming of Roger & Me -- which is, at UT Austin and many other film schools, a mainstay of the curriculum -- and what may or may not have actually happened.
Specifically, Pierson takes umbrage with Moore's continued refusal to acknowledge that he did actually interview Roger Smith back when he was filming Roger & Me (the major premise of the film was, of course, that Moore's quest to interview Smith and take him to task for shutting down the GM plant in Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan was unfulfilled). Some of Pierson's students, he says, felt that the revelation that Moore perhaps actually did talk to Smith damaged Moore's credibility and the entire premise on which his career was built, while others were just upset that Moore still, eighteen years later, hasn't publicly said (at least to my knowledge or, apparently, to Pierson's) that yeah, he did talk to Smith and left that bit out of the film because it didn't fit the story he wanted to tell.
You have to kind of feel for Pierson, who probably believed whole-heartedly in Moore and what he was trying to do at the time he helped sell Roger & Me and make it a landmark of documentary filmmaking. While Pierson says in his letter that he still loves Roger & Me as a film, he now seems to question the validity of Moore's entire premise, saying, "Rather than asserting that the world's largest corporation was a giant about to fall, your movie argued that GM should have kept the factories open, and kept the union wages and health benefits flowing, because they had a kind of social contract with the community of Flint. What - so they could lose an additional $10 billion if in fact they'd even managed to stay in business?"
This whole issue also brings up for me, as someone who loves documentary filmmaking almost more than any other genre of film, the ethical question of how much information a documentary filmmaker should put into his or her film. Docs over the past few years have more and more become blended with narrative storytelling; it's not enough anymore to just present the information in your doc in a straightforward, textbook fashion. From to Nanking to Jesus Camp, from War/Dance to Crazy Love, great docs these days do more than just inform, they entertain. The question is, how much absolute truth can (or should) a filmmaker edit out if it doesn't fit in with the story he's trying to tell, the premise he wants to present in his film?
Unfortunately, this whole issue of the ethics of documentary filmmaking can have the effect of tainting our trust in the genre. When we published a review of Nanking and interview with the film's producer, Ted Leonsis, we had numerous commenters from folks from the Japanese side of the story, claiming that Nanking didn't tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Several other films are in the works that will tell both the Japanese and Chinese sides of that story -- but how is the discerning viewer to determine where objective truth begins and subjective perception ends? When I saw Where the Sun Rises, a film about Xanana Gustamao, the president of the world's youngest nation, East Timor, at AFI Dallas this year, a question was raised at the post-screening Q&A whether some of the scenes between the president and his former enemies embracing warmly had been staged to further the film's theme of forgiveness.
Pierson's entire letter is a must-read, yet another piece in the recent history of documentary filmmaking that Moore himself helped start with Roger & Me way back in 1989. Does it matter anymore whether Moore did or did not actually interview Smith, and then covered it up? Moore himself, according to Pierson's piece, has said, "If I'd gotten an interview with him, why wouldn't I put it in the film?" If he did lie (and continues to lie) about this rather crucial bit of information, does that negate the value of the film as a whole, and shed doubt on Moore's cred as a filmmaker, or has the man earned enough indie film cred at this point that it just doesn't matter?
*Thanks to reader cinemalover for the correction. Mea culpa.