Maverick doc-maker Michael Moore’s sideways swipe at American gun-culture, Bowling For Columbine, was the first documentary in 46 years accepted for the Cannes Film Festival’s competition section. Not surprisingly, the tale of the films’ acceptance mirrors Moore’s trademark audacity. At a press conference for the film, held during the festival, Moore admitted he ‘looked at the [festival] website, at the bit where it says ‘no documentaries,’ and submitted it.’ He received the acceptance call on his birthday and the film was finished the day before the festival started. Bowling went on to win the festival’s 55th anniversary award.
Among the archive material included in the film is footage from the Columbine cafeteria closed-circuit TV and 911 calls, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in the U.S. ‘There’s been a number of Americans who’ve stopped me, in tears, to tell me how guns and violence have affected them,’ said Moore. ‘The film is dedicated to three people who died through guns, and just about every member of the crew has a friend or family member who has been affected in one way or another.’
Bowling was financed and co-produced by Canada’s Salter Street Films, and international sales are being handled by Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis. Since the festival, Charlotte Mickie, head of international motion picture sales, has sold the doc to all the major territories. ‘Buyers were queuing up,’ she says. ‘[Film distributor] Diaphana, in France, is anticipating 300,000 admissions.’ Mickie notes the film also earned great prices, despite tough times for European television: ‘The minimum guarantees were in exactly the same range as any important independent feature, doc or not.’ U.S. rights went to United Artists for US$3 million, rumored to be a record price for a doc.
Moore’s original idea for the $1.3 million, three-years-in-the-making doc was actually a feature film. ‘But, I decided a documentary was better,’ said the filmmaker. ‘The NRA is a non-profit organization with some 40 million members. I thought if I could persuade five million people to join, I could defeat Charlton Heston, its president, and either disband it or return it to its roots. It’s the National Rifle Association, not the National Uzi and Cop-Killer Bullet Association.’
Moore’s stalk-and-ambush tactics pay rich dividends when he gains access to Heston at the end of the film. ‘I tried to get him for two years and then gave up,’ he explained. ‘We were in L.A. researching the underpinnings of fear – racism – and had time before our flight. Basically to shut the crew up, I bought a map to the stars’ homes and went to Heston’s house. I thought he’d have gates, people, guns. Mostly guns. I went up to the intercom and the next thing I know, Moses’ voice is coming out of the box: ‘Come back tomorrow!’ So, we did.’
Citing Truffaut (‘You don’t know when you’re done, you just give up.’), Moore pared down Bowling‘s original 200-plus hours of footage to two: ‘Roger and Me was easier. I didn’t know, then, how to make a film.’
Moore expects the doc to arouse ‘an incredible amount of pressure and attack in the U.S.,’ but hopes that looking at America and posing hard questions will encourage people to ‘do something; turn their anger to action.’ Activism aside, Moore’s hopes for the film are simple: ‘I’m happy if people just have a good film experience. I’m a filmmaker and I want to make a good film.’