One year ago, director Michael Moore denounced the term “documentarian” and presented at the TIFF Doc Conference a 13-point manifesto encouraging filmmakers to make more theatrical, entertaining docs.
Thursday night (September 10), with the world premiere of Where to Invade Next, Moore’s first feature since 2009, the Detroit-born filmmaker delivered on his own advice, with a bombastic film that sees him pillaging European nations for such “good ideas” as universal healthcare, free post-secondary education and four-course school lunches.
Prior to the sold-out screening, Moore took the stage at Toronto’s Princess of Wales theater and said his team intentionally kept information about the film under wraps, which led to its announcement being a surprise to many in the industry. “I think people thought Edward Snowden was coming on the stage or something,” the director joked. “We were digging for something else in this movie and it’s called the American soul.”
Where to Invade Next comes from producers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal of Elsewhere Films, who also worked on Bowling for Columbine and Farenheit 9/11, respectively. But unlike those projects, which focus on such U.S. domestic issues as gun violence and foreign policy agendas, the comedy-infused Invade takes a different tack in exposing what Moore views as American shortcomings: instead of examining social inequality through Occupy Wall Street or the Ferguson shootings and protests, Moore presents what other countries – all European with the exception of Tunisia - are doing differently, as an example of what America should aspire to.
The Euro-trip kicks off in Italy, where Moore meets a couple that enjoys eight weeks of paid vacation a year. Through further interviews with factory workers and even Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali – “You’re the first CEO to meet with me on a factory floor,” Moore beams - the concept of vacations leading to relaxed workers and a more productive workflow is hammered home.
Meanwhile, in France, Moore visits a couple of schools to sample the multi-course meals served as lunches – nutritious portions that cost less than the unhealthy fare provided in American institutions, says Moore – while also noting the rarity of “abstinence only” sex education. Over in Finland, the director examines the education system’s no-homework policy, lack of standardized tests and uniformity in quality among public schools.
Elsewhere, in Slovenia, Moore visits the University of Ljubljana, where students don’t pay for tuition, and also discusses the education system with president Borut Pahor, while in Germany the focus is on high working standards and work-life balance at the Faber-Castell pencil company, and Holocaust education for German students. Finally, in his remaining treks, Moore covers Portugal’s decriminalization of drug use; Norway’s rehabilitation of inmates; Tunisia’s reproductive health centers; and Iceland’s first female prime minister.
Ultimately, the director says that many of the ideas practiced in Europe were founded in the U.S.: “We didn’t need to invade,” he reasons. “We just needed to go to the American ‘Lost and Found.’”
The idea for the film, Moore told the audience in a Q&A following a standing ovation for the film, came from a trip across Europe with a friend when he was 19. “We got the Euro Rail pass and youth hostel card and went for two months. And we just kept saying, ‘How come we [in America] don’t do this?’
“This idea has percolated for 30-plus years of, ‘What if we showed our fellow Americans that which we don’t have and what others do have; maybe that would inspire them,’” said Moore, who brought with him 2,000 “middle-class, union-made German pencils” from the Faber-Castell company for the audience.
When asked why it’s taken so long for Moore to make a new film, the director explained that after making 2009′s Capitalism: A Love Story, he was tired of being “the poster-boy of Fox News and doing this alone.” He would only continue if people “rose up” and got involved, too.
“It was really my call to the audience to say, ‘You’ve got to do something,’ and a couple of years later, Occupy Wall Street happened and pretty much since then I’ve been thinking about what I want to do next,” says Moore, who added that after Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement, it became clear he needed “to re-enlist and be a part of what needs to happen.”
TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers later pointed out that Moore’s crew had been calling Where to Invade Next the filmmaker’s “happy movie” because of its relatively light-hearted tone. The director said this was true for a couple of reasons: first, the film didn’t shoot “a single frame” in the U.S. in order to say more about the country “in a hopefully more profound and devastating way by going elsewhere.”
Secondly, Moore preemptively answered any critics who might point to Europe’s extensive economic woes and recessions. “The mainstream media does a really good job telling you day after day how the world is just so bad and it just sucks,” he said. “If you want to know why I didn’t point out Italy’s high unemployment rate, my answer to you is that I went there to pick the flowers and not the weeds.”
Rounding out the session, Powers noted that Where to Invade Next is the first film from Moore to enter the festival without a distributor since his 1989 debut Roger and Me, which secured a record sale with Warner Bros. shortly after its TIFF premiere. In response, Moore predicted that by the time he walked off the stage, a bidding war would already be brewing among the buyers in the room.
“I hope that by the end of the weekend we can announce here that millions of Americans are going to see this movie with a great distributor that’s going to make sure it will be seen all across the country,” said Moore.
- Check out a trailer for Where to Invade Next below: