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Michael Moore - American Idol



Feature by: Heather Metherell

IN THE spring of 1999, Michael Moore was working on his television series, The Awful Truth. He had just completed a new segment for the show, which he called 'Teen Sniper School', in which Moore had arranged for a weapons teacher to teach children as young as two how to fire guns.

"This was set at a school where we taught them the best way to take out the captain of the football team, or 'you forgot your anti-depressant medication today, so here's how you can release a lot of aggression'."

Not surprisingly, due to censorship, the episode never made it to air, but just days after its completion, 12 students and one teacher were shot dead in the Columbine High School massacre.

With the subject fresh in his mind, Moore decided to make a feature length documentary investigating the United State's relationship with guns. This was, however, not a new idea.

"Columbine was the trigger," he explained. "But it's been percolating in my head for a long time to do something about the American thirst for violence and why we so often use violence as a means to an end."

As the filmmaker filtered through the news reports on Columbine, he started to see unexpected coincidences. It became apparent that much of the recent violence had taken place, not far away from Moore's hometown in Michigan.

Eric Harris, one of the shooters at Columbine, had spent part of his youth living on an air force base near Moore's childhood home, and Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh's accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, went to the High School next to the one Moore attended.

Then there was Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association, who had grown up only an hour and a half away from Moore's home.

With this in mind, Moore set about making a film that would study these coincidences and look at why America's murder rate is so much higher than any other country in the world, while remaining an enjoyable experience for the average cinema-goer.

"In someone else's hands, this film would be, 'Hey, let's follow the gun nuts around and laugh at them'. But people do not go to the movies to be beaten up or to be lectured. People go to good movies because they like to be challenged and they definately want to be entertained," he said.

Moore has subsequently achieved what he set out to by combining deeply moving footage, with his trademark black humour. It is this combination that keeps the audience on its toes; constantly being moved from laughter to tears, though Moore says it was a difficult balance to strike:

"The first thing I had to deal with was people asking me how I could call it a comedy, as it's a school shooting we're dealing with. But of course you have to see the film to understand. I'm not making fun of that, there's nothing funny about school shootings.

"And that got me thinking about how it's important to tread where people are afraid to go, and that is exactly where humourists and satirists should be going."

The good news for Moore is that despite the heavy subject matter, and the documentary style of the piece, it has done remarkably well in America.

"After the fourth weekend on release in the States, having broken the previous record for a documentary which has set by (my film) Roger & Me, more people are going to see this film than any other documentary in a movie theatre," he revealed. "They did a poll of people coming out to see who was actually going and over 50 per cent of the people asked last weekend were people who've never gone to a documentary in a movie theatre before."

Despite these figures, Moore remains doubtful of the effect, if any, his film will actually have on the average American.

"My goal is that if 10 per cent leave the theatre in America thinking about what I've said, then I've scored a huge victory. And if five per cent of them do something, then maybe something will happen," he added.

"I honestly hope they leave the theatre thinking they've seen a good movie. I set out to make a film I would like to go and see."

As far as its success over here is concerned, Moore is hopeful: "I'm much more optimistic about this film in terms of a British audience because there's hope for you. I don't know if there's hope for us. I honestly don't.

"You've only started to go down our road; this film should be a warning to the British public. If you want to end up like this, keep on doing what you're doing."

Above all, Moore is a patriot, who only wishes the best for his fellow Americans, and who hopes that, in his own way, through his film-making, he can make some kind of difference in the way they think, and in the way they are perceived:

"When I watch this movie, I sit there and think that, as Americans, we're better than this. You know this about us, that as individuals we are good people.

"You do like us mostly when you encounter us. There's something charming and fascinating about our simpleness and our ability to just put it out there on our sleeve, saying this is who we are.

"So why then, when we collectivise ourselves as a society, do we do so much harm and damage to the world? There's the disconnect. I want the goodness of us as individuals connected to us as a whole, so we don't bring so much harm to the world."

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