, , ,

Movies Where to Invade NextDespite the contentious nature of his movies Michael Moore has never been a mean or belligerent film-maker.  He has seemed obnoxious to some when confronting unexpecting or unwilling interviewees about the topic at hand. But never has he had so much fun or been so cheerful, as in his latest, Where to Invade Next.  No ambush interviews. No unwilling man-in-the-street.  In fact, he arranged to have sit-down interviews with high luminaries from several countries some of whom were slightly bemused at the shambling, genial giant. Their willingness to talk with him may be because Michael wasn’t there to point out cruel corporate practices (General Motors in Roger and Me, 1989) or a cruel health system (Sicko in 2007) but to “steal” good ideas from the countries he is visiting and bring them back to the United States.

Italy is his first stop where he discovers that his interviewee couple enjoy eight weeks of vacation a year, and that the CEO of a large clothing factory is delighted to be paying his happy workers adequate living wages.  Mirth rises across the audience as it watches Michael and his guests try to absorb what the other is saying.  He looks gob-smacked when he adds up their vacation days; they look incredulous when he assures them that two weeks paid vacation in the US is rare and considered wonderful.

The scenes in a chef-operated lunchroom for an elementary school in France are priceless.  Not only are the kids served — yes served– on good dinner plates (breakable) such delicacies as lamb tajine, curried scallops and always, but always, a cheese course, but the hour-long lunch is treated  as another class event — learning to pass food back and forth, use a napkin, engage in conversation.  Moore teases the chef, “C’mon you really want a Whopper, don’t you?”  His appalled “Non, non, non!” is wonderful. As surprising as the good food and good manners around the table is the rainbow of color and culture — many more young African and Asian faces than our standard mental template of France makes room for.

He visits Finland for an engaging look at truly local schools. No homework, six-hour school days and plenty of play time yield students consistently at the top of international standings. Slovenia offers free university education — even for Americans who have not been able to afford it at home.

Two big surprises for those who think adopting Italian, French and Finnish ideas a no-brainer, are Norway and Portugal.  Here he “invades” to pick up ideas about prison and drugs.  In Norway he visits two prisons, one medium security in which the prisoners — murderers and rapists among them– all but police themselves.  In the kitchen Moore talks to Trond, a convicted murderer with a curling blue tattoo on his face. Moore says uneasily: “Uh, I can’t help but notice that behind you are a whole bunch of very sharp knives.” Trond grins and replies, yes, but for cutting meat, not people. On weekends there are only four guards for 115 inmates.  Intercutting the scenes and interviews with Norwegian prisoners are raw, horrific shots of prisoners being screamed at, stripped and beaten by guards in the US– disturbing even without the context of the Norwegian alternative.

In 2001 Portugal ended its draconian laws and punishment related to drug use.  Moore visited with Dr. Nuno Capaz, the Portuguese minister of health.  When meeting the minister, in a T-shirt and rough beard, Moore opines he looks something like a drug user, himself.  Capaz readily confesses, yes: “Mostly alcohol, internet, a lot of coffee, some sugar.” Incarcerations for drug use are almost non-existent since the new law, but surprisingly to most, death-by-overdose and even drug usage have greatly declined.  Capaz cautions about thinking decriminalization alone would be a solution to America’s terrible drug costs.  We have support for all who need it, he says.  Those who need help find it.

Moore’s final stops are in Tunis and Iceland.  The idea to steal is equality for women. Tunis is unique in the Arab world for the size of women’s participation in the workforce and in government.  In 2014 it passed a version of an Equal Rights Amendment.

“All male and female citizens have the same rights and duties. They are equal before the law without discrimination,” states article 20 of the text, which was approved by 159 lawmakers out of the 169 who voted. Jan 5, 2014

In Iceland, where the first female president in any western democracy was elected in 1980– and who Moore interviews– the focus shifts strongly to the importance of full female representation in governance and business.  During the catastrophic collapse of Iceland’s banking sector during the 2008 financial crisis, the only bank that did not fail was run by women.  As the country and the economy picked itself up, Iceland was one of the few countries where the (male) malefactors of great wealth were brought to trial and sent to prison for reckless and illegal behavior.

The movie is not, as Moore himself says, a policy prescription. Nor is it a wide-ranging documentary of any one country.  It is a fun-filled ride of what-ifs.  Anyone who knows anything about some of the places he visits will know things are not as rosy as the movie portrays.  Sure, employed Italians have very nice vacation benefits but the Italian youth unemployment rate in January of this year was at 39.3%, down from 43% when he was making the movie.  Yes, Tunis has paid attention to women’s rights but recent reporting, here and here, is quite concerned about a conservative male resurgence.  No mention was made of an ongoing Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunisia which, according to Carlotta Gall in May 2015, is revealing grotesque crimes, official and familial, against women.

None of which matters to the point or the enjoyment of the film.  He’s showing lovely, adoptable ideas, not making a cross national summing up of all the good and the bad.  The curmudgeons who fault Moore for his “wreaking havoc in the realm of the truth,” (Wall Street Journal) are conducting their own counter-assault.  No one coming out of the movie is going to think cutting and pasting the ideas into an American context would work exactly as portrayed.  Almost everyone will be tickled to think – wow! I didn’t know that? Why couldn’t such an idea be put to the test, here or there, Del Norte County, California or Cumberland County in Maine?  Is it really true, as practiced in the United States, that the only way to control prisoners is through four-guards-on-one-prisoner beatings?  Other experiences in the world show otherwise.  The examples shown, in all the countries,  have a constant touchstone: what is best for the individual will be best for the society, healthy food, good education, integration not retribution, full female participation.  As Moore points out, these same ideas were once common in America and have gotten lost or misshapen along the way.  Let’s talk….


As a post script, here in an interview with Cara Buckley at the NY Times Moore tells us something I did not know.

After my [Bowling for Columbine, 2003] Oscar speech [when I criticized the invasion of Iraq] and I got booed off the stage, somebody at the [Transportation Security Administration] keyed the Oscar. I got home, I live in a rural area in northern Michigan, some guys had a dump truck full of horse manure and built an almost four-foot wall across our driveway with the manure and then taped signs on all the trees along the road saying “Move to Cuba,” “Get the hell out of here,” just nutty stuff like that. Then I went through five years of a number of physical assaults on me, a couple of those were actually attempts to kill me, and then the attempt to blow up my house by this guy who had a fertilizer bomb, à la Oklahoma City.

Even so, he continued to make movies, and here he shines some optimism about the current political campaigns.

The only way the Democrats can lose this is if they stay home. We don’t have the courage of our convictions the way that the right and the conservatives do. It’s something you have to admire about them. They’re up on Election Day at 6 in the morning, ready to go do their duty, and we’re like, “I don’t know, Bernie didn’t go for the Brady Bill, or Hillary voted for the war.”