Priyanka Maharaj

Michael Moore: A Critical Look


I’ve grown up watching documentaries, from nature documentaries narrated by the soulful voice of David Attenborough too the countless historical documentaires exploring ancient civilisations. Admittedly, before entering the world of documentary making, I watched documentaries as a form of entertainment and an educational tool. I never cared for who made the documentary, how it was created or even what style of documentary it was. So I found it both interesting to the read the article by Michael Moore on the IndieWire website.

Michael Moore – Bowling For Colombine shoot. 

Michael more is predominantly known for creating controversy and political commentaries in the form of documentaries. Moore sets out “13 Rules For Documentary filmmaking,” whilst some points I agree with and understand others create confusion and leave me with the impression that Michael Moore likes to contradict himself.

His first rule found in the article – the “Fight Club” rule; Don’t make a documentary — make a MOVIE, although I struggle to entirely understand exactly what Moore is explaining, I do have to agree. Yes, both documentaries and “movies” (by movies I assume Moore is referring to narrative films) should be visually enticing to the story. All visual cinema, no matter what form should be executed with the same level of attention and respect; cinema is after all an art form. Yes, both forms should evoke emotions and too an extent, may manipulate viewers; it is agreeable that documentaries should not be a visual lecture or political speech or even overly preachy. Documentaries are meant to be”a slice of life,” no fictional, as explained on-, thus providing facts. However, Moore is known for not exactly practicing what he preaches after viewers and critics found his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) to be an “controversial tirade against the Bush administration.” After viewing the documentary myself, I did see a political agenda and manipulation of the audience via editing techniques such as interlacing interviews with politically motivated b-roll. Documentaries should aim to pry away from agendas and clear manipulation, however, should still provide factual information to support the over arching message.

His second rule – Don’t tell me shit I already know is as blunt as a hammer and agreeable. There have been so many times where I’ve watched a documentary (Supersize Me) and gone, “I already know that! I know; eating terrible, horrible, delicious junk food and doing next to no exercise will leave me in an oversized coffin (dramatic emphasis).” People loose interest with the subject matter, no matter how important it may be, if they’re shown the same topic exactly the same as it has been before, with no innovation. Where I agree with Moore is in his statement in the article; “…focus on the majority — they’re the ones who are going to make change happen anyway. But don’t tell them stuff they already know. Take them someplace they haven’t been. Show them something they’ve never seen.”  The film Miss Representation (2011) focuses on the topic of gender disparity and how woman are overly sexualised within American media; a well documented subject. Although the documentary may be a little “preachy” however the content, the “drama” and the fresh perspective of the documentary is what makes it unique and successful.

The seventh “rule”- it’s important to make your films personal, I agree with too an extent. Some documentaries have a clear “director’s vision,” and if the director has a personal connection to the subject, in most cases, it benefits the project. Whether or not you like Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) by Moore, it was clear that the documentary was personal and he was passionate about the subject and message, thus its global success.

Moore’s eleventh “rule” – While you are filming a scene for your documentary, are you getting mad at what you are seeing? I have too say I am a little troubled in understanding. Yes, there should always be a motivation to what is shown on screen. There should be a reason, sometimes not always clear, as too why were are seeing or hearing what we are. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that emotions “have” to be touched upon in every scene. You shouldn’t aim to make your audience consistently mad or sad or joyful. Yes, how the director views a scene may very well be how the audience will react but that isn’t always the case. But I have to say, people shouldn’t/don’t make documentaries for themselves, I feel as though if you were to or at least try to monitor, every interpretation or emotional response to a scene then the essence of a documentary is lost. It becomes too personal and you as the documentary maker will be the only one to appreciate the doco for what it is.

His tenth “rule” – try to film only the people who disagree with you, I find a little challenging to understand. It is interesting to see the opposite perspective to what is being documented, providing validity, less bias and a chance to confirm/stress the point. However, its seems as though if you were to just find lots of people that disagree with the subject matter and depict that, it may feel like a propaganda piece, especially if “rich people in power have some ‘splainin’ to do.” 

Similarly the sixth “rule” – Why don’t more of your films go after the real villains — and I mean the REAL villains? is challenging. I’m not sure if it’s my lack of interest for political documentaries especially ones with a clear agenda. However, going after the “big guys” is seen so often in documentaries; for instance, any vegan documentary, or the documentary called ‘Big Men’ that targets the international oil business. Another point I have to raise, is that people simply don’t care enough for the big guys and may not want to watch a doco talking about how bad they are, we-you-I, already know that. We don’t need to be lectured, after being told that the big guys are usually the bad guys it feels like we’re just getting lectured.

In short, Michael Moore does raise some valid and agreeable points in his article on the IndieWire website. However, does contradict himself and some of his works reflect that. His words have made me realise how important ethics, innovation and creativity if not only in documentary making but in filmmaking in general.