TIFF ’14: Michael Moore presents 13-point doc manifesto

In his keynote at TIFF's Doc Conference on Tuesday, Michael Moore (pictured) said more documentaries need to be made for theaters, rather than television, and that these films need to entertain audiences instead of lecture them.
September 9, 2014

Michael Moore (pictured) may be a lot of things, but one thing he – quite adamantly – is not, is a documentarian, he told delegates during his keynote at the Toronto International Film Festival’s sixth annual Doc Conference.

“We are not documentarians, we are filmmakers,” said the Roger & Me director, dressed casually in a black T-shirt and shorts and sporting his signature baseball cap. “This word, ‘documentarian’? I am here today to declare that word dead. That word is never to be used again.

“People love going to the movies. The audience doesn’t want to be lectured, they want to be entertained. And that’s the big dirty word of documentary filmmaking,” he said.

In the hour-long keynote, Moore said that more documentaries need to be made for theaters, rather than television, and that these films need to do more to entertain audiences rather than lecture them.

Moore, citing a conversation with Sony Pictures Classics head Michael Barker, says documentary makers are having more difficulty securing theatrical distribution for films nowadays because audiences have stopped going to theaters to see documentaries they believe they can just as easily watch at home.

The director said he considered himself part of the problem, since the commercial success of his documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 convinced distributors to put more documentaries in theaters, and ultimately opened the floodgates for a number of television-oriented docs being shown on the big screen.

“The audience that got used to seeing the theatrical documentaries from [Morgan] Spurlock and even Al Gore, they came out of the theater going, ‘Well that was a good documentary, but I could have seen that at home on television. Why did I pay $12 for that?’” explained Moore.

“The public is not going to go a theater to see a documentary that you can see on television for free. So basically a glut was created and turned these audiences off and people stopped going to see these films in theaters.”

Moore said that in order to get people to revisit theaters for docs, filmmakers need to make more theater-oriented, accessible work.

The director spent the latter half of his keynote outlining a 13-point manifesto for filmmakers:

1) Don’t make a doc, make a movie.
“The art is more important than the politics,” said Moore. “Because if I make a [crappy] movie, my politics won’t get through to anybody. The art has to come first.”

2) Don’t tell me anything I already know. 
“Give people something new they haven’t seen before,” said Moore. “With Roger & Me  I said there shouldn’t be one shot of an unemployment line. People are numb to those images.”

3) Don’t let your documentary resemble a college lecture. 
“We have to invent a different kind of model than the college lecture model,” said Moore.

4) Too many of your documentaries feel like medicine.
“Don’t show a doc that’s going to kill [an audience's] evening,” said Moore.

5) The Left is boring.
“It’s why we have a hard time convincing people to think about some of the things we’re concerned about,” said Moore. “The Left has lost its sense of humor and we need to be less worried.”

6) Why don’t we name names?
“Why don’t we go after the corporations and name them by name?” asked Moore. “You will be sued. People will be mad at you. But so what?”

7) Make your films personal.
“People want to hear your voice,” said Moore. “It’s what most docs stay away from, and most don’t like narration. But who’s saying this film?”

8) Point your camera at the cameras.
Moore advised doc makers to challenge the mainstream media and film its coverage of various events.

9) Follow the examples of non-fiction books and television.
“People love to watch [Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert,” he said. “Why don’t you try to make films that come from the same spirit? People just want the truth and they want to be entertained.”

10) Film only the people who disagree with you. 
The director said that while filming Roger & Me he tried to stay away from interviewing union workers to tell the story, since they were basically friends. Interviews with those who held contradictory opinions are harder to secure, but more interesting to audiences, said Moore.

11) Make sure you’re getting emotional when filming. 
“Are you getting mad when filming a scene? Are you crying?” asked Moore. “That’s evidence that the audience will respond that way, too… [You] are a stand-in for the audience.”

12) Less is more. 
“Edit, and make it shorter,” Moore advised, saying it’s okay to let audiences fill in the gaps. “People love that you trust they have a brain.”

13) Sound is more important than picture.
“Sound carries the story,” said Moore. “Don’t cheat on the sound, and don’t be cheap with the sound.”

Moore closed his session by saying he wanted more non-fiction films to be seen by millions of people and that “it’s a crime that they are aren’t.”

“For a long time I blamed the distributors, the studios and the financiers, and really, we should just take a few moments to blame ourselves as filmmakers,” he said.

  • Roger & Me will get a 25th anniversary home video re-release via Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
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