Film: Days 6-7

[18 March 2007]

By Terry Sawyer and Anita Schillhorn

Only bad critics can’t admit when they’ve made a mistake. After publishing a scathing review of Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk’s anti-Michael Moore documentary, we spoke to the filmmakers themselves to try to get a better idea of where they were coming from. It turns out they are far more convincing in person. So, while we still have reservations, we’ve presented that interview today alongside reviews of a global-warming doc that picks up where An Inconvenient Truth left off and a festival darling about sisters with bitter secrets. Don’t worry, we’re 99.9 percent sure we got those last two right.

Everything’s Cool, Orphans,  Interview: Makers of Manufacturing Dissent

EVERYTHING’S COOL
Directed by Daniel B. Gold & Judith Helfand

And you thought you knew everything about global warming after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. Filmmakers Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand pick up where Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film left off, documenting the ways in which information about climate change is suppressed by the American government. 

They talk to lobbyists, think-tank advisers, activists, former government employees, and more to find out what information is available and why it’s not making the impact it should. There are some powerful arguments about media strategy and oil-company funding, investigating oil company-funded think tanks that consistently refute climate-change finding that most scientists have accepted as fact. In addition, we learn that the government is shushing its own employees and censoring its own research on climate-change issues. During filming, Hurricane Katrina and other events brought climate change into clearer focus in the public eye, and, thus, Everything’s Cool traces the transition of the subject matter from marginalized science to front-page news.

The film suffers mildly from a desire to cover too many subjects and follow too many people, but most of the stories contribute greatly to the understanding of America’s media and environment landscape right now. Some shots and scenes feel overly long and fairly unnecessary, such as a sprinkling of endless scenes of Dr. Heidi Cullen, the Weather Channel’s climate change expert, discussing minute changes in her scripts with her colleagues. But it accomplishes its task of providing viewers with an understanding of how far the government and industries have gone to eviscerate climate change information, and how environmentalists, activists, and scientists have tried to keep the information public. Plus, you get a demonstration of how (not) to make your own biodiesel out of vegetable oils. Hint: do your research. (AS)

ORPHANS
Directed by Ry Russo-Young

The winner of a Special Jury Prize here at SXSW, Orphans is about two estranged sisters. As sisters do, they share some secrets with each other and keep others to themselves. In the snowy isolation of upstate New York, Sonia (James Katharine Flynn) and Rosie (Lily Wheelwright) come together for Sonia’s birthday. There, captured in lush close-ups and rich settings, the two women battle over the past with outbursts, silences, and lies.

The film is visually mesmerizing, and the tale is told as much through the women’s expressions and actions as through their words. Much as a relationship between siblings depends on mutual histories and shared memories that remain unspoken, the film’s story reveals itself without speaking. Russo-Young crafted this atmosphere by working closely with her actresses—inviting them to share their earliest childhood memories and even to take each other to their favorite childhood places. Shot over seven weeks in the desolate house where most of the film takes place, the all-female cast and crew contribute to the intimate and intense atmosphere of the film.

The characters often behave with irrational action, motivated by deep secrets that are quietly sketched out for us. Their relationship is tautly portrayed and unrelentingly strung between tension and tenderness. Russo-Young’s vision is well-rewarded by the Special Jury Award, and it should affirm the young director’s rise in a new American independent cinema. (AS)

Orphans - Trailer

Manufacturing Retractions: An Interview with Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk, makers of Manufacturing Dissent
By Terry Sawyer

I wish I could be one of those writers who never feels the need to temper an opinion, or offer a retraction. It’d be nice to just let the horses run and clean their hooves at the end of a good day’s work. When I left Manufacturing Dissent, I was seething, in large part because I felt like I was being sold a bill of right-wing goods from a group of savvy Canadian tricksters. But this zero-sum psychology is part of the hysteria and paranoia—much of it justified—consuming American media.  Our non-ideological outlets of information dwindle daily, and you have to actively sort the intentions and biographies of the people speaking to have any chance of knowing whether or not their work is politically calculated. 

As it turns out, Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine are not tools for the right (they’ve turned down their chance to meet Sean Hannity’s hair in person), but old-fashioned social activists with deep concerns. They’re interested in elevating the level of political discourse to the point where all citizens consider it their duty to be educated. 

In person, they are extraordinarily thoughtful and open to a lengthy dialogue, a major kindness during a festival where time is one of the priciest commodities.  I found their intellectual generosity particularly compelling, especially since I opened the conversation with “I just think that you should know that I had no positive reaction to your film.” (I think that if you trashed someone’s movie, they have the right to know that going into a conversation).

When I walked out of that initial screening, I hadn’t analyzed my reaction enough. When I actually talked to the two Canadian socialists who made the film, they completely changed my mind about the merits of their work. I still have reservations about the use of psychiatric assessment as a tool in political documentary, and I would still quibble over a few minor points of fact in Manufacturing Dissent. But I can now see both its potential contributions to the way we talk about politics in America and the dangers of picking a means-to-end side when we should all be in pursuit of the whole truth.  When I said that the film shouldn’t be given the time of day, I was wrong, shrill, and too much of a battle-hardened liberal to see a third and much deeper way to politically frame this documentary. 

PopMatters:  When you began the film, did you actually begin the film as people who had no preconceived opinions about Michael Moore?

Rick Caine: If what you’re asking is if we had really big opinions about Michael Moore, the answer is no.  To be perfectly honest, we had been working on other films and we hadn’t been following him really closely. The only thing we knew about Michael Moore was his documentaries, and that was it. We hadn’t even read his books yet. 

Debbie Melnyk: We don’t read blog sites. 

PM:  There are two threads in the film, one that makes a lot of sense to me and one that makes me very uncomfortable. I understand as documentarians why it would make you upset that Michael Moore sometimes doesn’t tell the truth in his documentaries. But what about these grand psychiatric narratives in the film, diagnosing Moore, almost?

RC: You must be referring to something said by someone like Sam Riddle. Our approach when trying to take a look at a person in film is that we’re interested in first-hand stories about the person. Our preference is a sit-down interview where we can discuss all kinds of issues and then we want the subject’s voice to be the primary authority in the film.  But in a case when it’s non-authorized and the subject is non-cooperative, our preference is to collect a cacophony of voices, a Greek chorus about the person. So that’s where some of these comments you’re referring to came in. Did you happen to see the Ralph Nader documentary, by the way?

PM: No.

RC:  Our thing is when you’re trying to take an up-close-and-personal look at someone, of course the audience is going to be interested in what the person is like beyond their public persona. In that film (An Unreasonable Man), they didn’t go there at all, so in the end, I still wondered who was Ralph as a person. I get the whole politics and how important he is and how he has benefited all of our lives, but at the end of the film, I’m still thinking, who is he?  And maybe you think that kind of speculation is somehow inappropriate, and you’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but we think it’s relevant. It’s something we wanted to know and it’s something that the audience wants to know.

PM:  But don’t you think the documentary unfairly suggests that he is a person with no real beliefs, completely Machiavellian, who just wants to make money.

RC:  No.

DM:  We believe his beliefs go hand-in-hand with making money. 

RC:  Yes, the two are always tied together, the cause and the profit. This is a capitalist society and that’s how it works.

DM:  I guess what we’re saying is that there was never any infrastructure set up after any of these films to make social change. After Bowling for Columbine, instead of trying to get a gun-control bill tabled in the legislature, there was no follow-up.

RC:  There was much discussion when Michael was promoting Roger & Me about what he was going to do to save the unemployed autoworker. I know he has given some money and done some good things, but, in the end, there has been no kind of social movement to spark the underpinning of his film and actually change things. Michael has become a gatekeeper. He’s the cultural touchstone of the left. In a lot of ways, we regard him as our spokesperson, but he disappears for long periods of time, and he’s not an active voice in these issues between projects. Now he may think, and he may be right—I don’t know—that if he’s out there all the time, then he runs the risk of becoming one of these Jesse Jackson type figures and therefore no one would be interested in talking to him. Therefore, the best way to promote his books and projects would be to go away for a period of time. But then he’s operating as some kind of societal gatekeeper there. Sure, let’s discuss health care, but pay ten bucks for my movie first.

DM:  It’s always next movie, next issue. I mean, it would be nice if you could change things with your film.

RC:  In the end, that’s what we all want right: a better, progressive, and caring society?

PM:  No, I don’t think that’s what we all want. At least, not in my country [the United States].

RC:  That’s very interesting. Let me put it to you this way. Do you think that George Bush thinks that he’s right?

PM:  Honestly, I have no idea. I have no idea what happens inside George Bush’s head.  To be perfectly honest, I would think that one of the ideas that your movie promotes is that it’s difficult to necessarily guess someone’s intentions from their surface representations.

RC: I think we’re arguing more that there’s a cacophony of complicated interests involved, political and economic.

PM:  If having a more progressive and just society is your goal, do you actually believe that your movie will be used to that end?

RC:  I see the downside here, which it seems to me is what you’re asking about. We’re loathe to know that our film will most likely, probably, get used by the right in America for their own nefarious purposes. But we have no more control over that then Michael Moore had control over Hamas and Hezbollah doing fundraising over his films in the Middle East. I know that Michael is not happy about that. I’m not suggesting that he made Fahrenheit 9/11 to make that happen. People do with these things what they’re going to do with them. This film is a critique of Michael Moore and his documentarian techniques.

DM: But for me I think there’s a larger issue at stake as well. I think everyone out there should do more research on these issues, on both sides of the divide. Instead of just “I heard this” so I’m going to believe it or “I heard that” so I’m going to believe, just go out there and do some research. I also object to the culture of celebrity. I think you have to follow what you believe and your beliefs should come up from your own readings.

RC:  Underneath all of this now, Terry, is what we believe is the most crucial issue of our time, but we try not to be that heavy handed about it in the film. But we believe that a well-functioning democracy is dependent on an informed electorate. And to have an informed electorate, you can’t have a media that’s bullshitting them, and that applies to both sides of this divide. If you’re the type of person that’s willing to lie for the cause and try to go out and do your stories and try to make the facts fit the kind of story you’re trying to tell, instead of the other way around, it poses all kinds of difficulties for creating and maintaining an informed electorate. 

PM:  I completely agree. It’s just interesting to me that you would have that belief and not recognize that these tactics are so disproportionately practiced by the right. There’s Michael Moore, but then I can name three dozen right-wing versions of Michael Moore who are infinitely worse.

DM:  We don’t agree with them either. Just out of curiosity, have you been to Canada?

PM:  Oh yeah, I’m a Michigander.

DM:  Our politics just aren’t as extreme as they are here. And I don’t think that extremism helps either side move forward. I think that there has to be room for a dialogue. 

RC:  Sean Hannity and these idiots totally lie for their cause every day and then masquerade as reporters. I have a 17-year-old nephew in Houston who’ll say ‘I believe this’ or ‘Rush Limbaugh said that’ and I’m tell him that stuff is poison and he needs to get it out of his head. 40 percent of the people who watch Fox News hate them. Turn the garbage off. Subtract the audience that hates them and they’re the lowest rated cable network. 

PM: I appreciate you taking the time to give me the time to get your perspective.  That makes me a lot more comfortable, though I’m still having trouble with some of the loaded psychiatry words. 

RC: Well, I’m not sure that was our intent. Our intention was to spark dialogue and debate and from what we’ve been seeing that has been happening. People have been approaching us at parties saying that they were debating the film and didn’t know if they should talk to us. Of course you should talk to us. 

DM: We certainly don’t want to turn people off of the left, we’re further left, we’re Naderites.

RC: We’re socialists.  The other larger and important point here is that we don’t purport to have The Truth in this film. There’s your truth and in a certain sense our truth.  So when Sam (Riddle) said to us that Moore was Machiavellian and paranoid, at the time, we thought it was bullshit, but then all this stuff started happening to us in our attempts just to get an interview. But to a certain extent, you can begin to understand some of his paranoia because he’s been under attack from the American Right for so long, he’s probably in that cocoon of ‘if I don’t know who you are and I don’t know where you’re coming from, then I’m not interested’.

DM:  Well, he has had death threats.

RC:  That’s true, but also you should be reading our e-mail lately.  It’s largely from the Left and we’re like “Holy Shit!”

Manufacturing Dissent - Trailer

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/film-days-6-7/