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POWER LINE ON F 9/11

We saw Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 on Friday night. Judging by the longest movie line I've seen in my life and incredible box office numbers, you all did too. I found it deeply saddening, aggravating, funny, ocassionally boring, ocassionally informative, and often manipulative. I believe the heart of the movie is the story of Lila Lipscomb, an "All-American" Flint, MI mom who loses her son in Iraq. [ more at Tacitus ]

When I was setting cameras up to interview the guys at Power Line, I believe it was Scott who said, "You're not going to Michael Moore us, are you Chuck?" I'm sure this isn't the last time I'll hear that. I didn't think to mention this at the time, but it's actually impossible for me to "Michael Moore" anyone, because Blogumentary is an open-source documentary: all of the footage I shot will be released. So if you suspect I'm up to some trickery with my editing, or simply want to know more, you'll be able to simply download the whole interview and judge for yourself. That's transparency, and that's exactly what Michael Moore should be doing.

Naturally, I couldn't get through the interview without a little F 9/11 discussion. They haven't seen the film - in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, I strongly urge all conservatives to see this film - but Hinderocket has plenty of ammo for Michael Moore:

Power Line on Fahrenheit 9/11: Quicktime, 6 MB | Windows, 5 MB

UPDATE: Ralph Nader is critical of Moore too, although for radically different reasons.

By the way? Too many people are saying "This is not a documentary." People call it a political ad, propaganda, a visual Op-Ed piece — all kinds of things. PEOPLE. A film can be all of those things and still be a documentary. Documentary has never ever been "objective", even from the early days of Nanook of the North. Documentary film is big umbrella, and there's plenty of room for the likes of Fahrenheit 9/11.

June 28, 2004 at 02:19 AM in Blogumentary | Permalink

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By your definition then, "documentary" is a virtually meaningless term.

I don't think many people expect Moore to be "objective" and his perspective is not what excludes F9/11 from the documentary category. It's the assertions he presents as facts that are known--documented--falsehoods, such as the story of the Saudi families departing after 9/11 that the Powerline guys mention in your interview. This is not just a different point of view.

I agree that a documentary can be a political ad, a visual op-ed or even propaganda insofar as it may emphasize certain facts to the exclusion of others. What it can't be, in my book, is dishonest. And that's what F9/11 is.

Posted by: barker at Jun 28, 2004 3:22:34 PM

Well, this is all somewhat subjective of course. You say a documentary can emphasize certain facts to the exclusion of others - many people would call that "dishonest." I'd probably say it's misleading or manipulative. Dishonest, to me, is intentionally stating a falsehood as true. I think you're saying Moore is intentionally stating a falsehood as true, and that should disqualify F 9/11 from being a documentary.

Keep in mind we're talking about a genre of film here. It's not made of glass - it doesn't simply shatter if there is a questionable fact. Think of documentary more like a big old willow tree that's been around a long time. All kinds of people are pulling it and bending it in different directions, including me. Now, Moore is a big fat guy and he's certainly bending the tree in his direction, but I think it can withstand his weight.

Let's say Moore is malicious and dishonest (conservatives: "Yes, let's!"), and the manner of post-9/11 departure of Saudi families is an uncontested fact, and that Moore lied about it in his film. I think Moore breaks some branches in this case. The problem: there is other content in the film - particularly war footage in Iraq, interviews with soldiers and Lila Lipscomb, footage of the 2000 election debacle - that is depicting reality. Classic documentary. What is the whole soup then? I guess I'd call it a problematic or unreliable documentary. But I wouldn't fault you for saying that is not a documentary.

The obvious problem: The manner of departure of Saudi families is not an uncontested fact. For one thing, Moore produced his documentary before Richard Clark claimed responsibility. Not long ago, the departure of Saudi nationals was shrouded in mystery or flat-out denied. A lot of the Saudi-Bush content is based upon Craig Unger's book, House of Bush, House of Saud. So, we're dealing with a topic that's been constantly changing and hotly contested. This is the stuff of news and blogs. It's risky for a documentary to even jump into the fray, because more facts will come out and things might change quickly. But these are fast times, and Michael Moore took a (slanted, indulgent) crack at it. Doesn't mean it's not documentary.

Even now, with Clark claiming responsibility, the waters are less than clear. For one thing, Clark is contradicting his earlier sworn testimony before the 9/11 commission. “The request came to me, and I refused to approve it,” Clarke had testified. Also, not all of the people on those flights were interviewed by the FBI.

In other words, there is plenty of fodder for a documentarian to depict the departure of Saudi nationals, question the way it was handled, and use it to underscore the tight relationship between the Bush family and the Saudis.

Further reading: Roger Ebert, '9/11': Just the facts?

Posted by: Chuck Olsen at Jun 28, 2004 4:46:04 PM

CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: Just the facts on 'Fahrenheit 9/11' (excerpt)

Moore is guilty of a classic game of saying one thing and implying another when he describes how members of the Saudi elite were flown out of the United States shortly after 9/11.

If you listen only to what Moore says during this segment of the movie -- and take careful notes in the dark -- you'll find he's got his facts right. He and others in the film state that 142 Saudis, including 24 members of the bin Laden family, were allowed to leave the country after Sept. 13.

The date -- Sept. 13 -- is crucial because that is when a national ban on air traffic, for security purposes, was eased.

But nonetheless, many viewers will leave the movie theater with the impression that the Saudis, thanks to special treatment from the White House, were permitted to fly away when all other planes were still grounded. This false impression is created by Moore's failure, when mentioning Sept. 13, to emphasize that the ban on flights had been eased by then. The false impression is further pushed when Moore shows the singer Ricky Martin walking around an airport and says, "Even Ricky Martin couldn't fly."

Posted by: Chuck Olsen at Jun 28, 2004 6:01:19 PM

Do you think Michael Moore can honestly say what you say at the top of this page: "I seek the truth"?

From everything I've seen Mr. Moore seeks, first and foremost, the ascendancy of his political ideology (as does Roger Ebert, by his own admission in the piece you linked). And he assembled this film to fit that agenda, even in the face of inconvenient facts. Such a production may indeed have documentary qualities, but I think it's more properly called propaganda.

As Hitchens wrote: "...I know, thanks, before you tell me, that a documentary must have a "POV" or point of view and that it must also impose a narrative line. But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your "narrative" a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft. If you flatter and fawn upon your potential audience, I might add, you are patronizing them and insulting them. By the same token, if I write an article and I quote somebody and for space reasons put in an ellipsis like this (…), I swear on my children that I am not leaving out anything that, if quoted in full, would alter the original meaning or its significance. Those who violate this pact with readers or viewers are to be despised. ..."

If we are to call Moore's work "documentary" then we devalue the term. Chuck, you appear to be a genuine documentarian. Moore is a propagandist. I think that's a distinction worth maintaining.

Posted by: barker at Jun 28, 2004 10:18:40 PM

Geez, how can I debate a guy putting me above Michael Moore? ;-)

I think Michael Moore seeks the truth that has been supressed. Documentarians are under no journalistic obligation to give equal time to all points of view, which Michael Moore takes to the extreme.

I'm with your sentiment though, entirely. I wish he would let his films breathe with some other points of view. I think it would make his films stronger. But these are incredibly polarized times and there's an election coming up. I'll be talking about this more when I post additional clips from the Power Line guys - for many people this is a war. Not on terror - but on each other.

Posted by: Chuck at Jun 28, 2004 10:43:57 PM

"But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your "narrative" a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft."

Replace the word "craft" with "trust" and you have President Bush and his cabal in a nutshell. Special thanks to Hitchens for making this moment so special.

Posted by: desrosiers at Jun 29, 2004 1:27:15 AM

Hey there, Chuck.

Take it from me, it's confusing to call your documentary "open source". I understand you're planning to release the raw interviews into the public in some fashion, but "open source" sounds like the creation of the interviews themselves were made in a collaborative fashion, and they were not. Unless, of course, you did something like set up a Wiki that had people generate question lists that you would be bringing to the interview ("Dave Winer, why are you insane?") and you bring them on to consult on what the list of interviewees are, it's a different situation entirely, one where you're opening the components of your work to the public post-production, to either serve as an addition to the Commons or to provide yourself some justification for choices made in editing.

When I started the BBS Documentary project in 2001, I knew that I was taking on a bear of a subject and that there'd be a lot of weigh-ins and people unhappy with choices or lack of choices or the rest. And I was quite right; I have recieved some amazing demands and rants indeed, over who should be in, who should not, what I should cover, how much I should cover. And not written as suggestions, either. But I think the choice was right, and for 6 months before filming I took all this correspondence (several thousand letters) and worked out a plan on who to interview. The final set of folks (200) are here: http://www.bbsdocumentary.com/photos/interviews

What I ended up doing was creating a sort of "steering committee" of folks I was in admiration of or who were experts in some aspect of BBSes, and would bring them information or ideas and get reactions. Some never said anything, but many did, privately, and important choices were made based on their help. I think that was a best move, and it was collaborative in that sense I was talking about -- but I still would shy away from saying it was "open source".

Now, my intention, like yours, is to release the footage, although more as a question/answer edited version. I had originally planned to just put each hour up, but trust me, it's beyond boring. Like you, many of the folks I interviewed have me as their sole video interview, so this is their first time being called upon to answer these questions, and in this format. In cases where people froze up (some didn't think they were interesting enough to be interviewed, and were of course quite wrong), I would begin to spin stories, events and situations I'd experienced, and they'd get reminded of an old friend or fact or event and start talking about it. So I really am not going to subject people to my (uninterestingly repetitive) stories. On the other hand, I do intend the full question/statement that I gave them to work with to be in there, so it's clear what they're reacting to, so that, like you show concern about, people can have on record what they were "really" saying in case there's a dispute.

Clocking in at a good number of hours split into episodes, I expect there to be at least a few controversies that my production will revive or be at the center of. This is what happens when you make a statement. It just happens.

I have already made arrangements with archive.org to host my footage to download from. If you want, I can put you in touch with those folks as well.

--

Regarding Moore and his works, F9/11 is by far his weakest non-dramatic film. And I do agree that it stretches the term "documentary" (but does not break it). Just something can be "based on a true story" yet introduce new situations, characters and interactions, Moore can certainly be considered somewhere under the documentary umbrella; but he is not completely covered by it. I think that, combined with the obvious political aspects of the film, are part of the controversy. Ive watched it enflame chat rooms, websites, blogs, newspapers, and television. It's quite something.

The main annoying thing for me is now documentaries are considered "hot" and I won't have my product done for another few months. Oh well.

Posted by: Jason Scott at Jul 3, 2004 4:05:11 AM

Hey Jason!

I never called you did I. Sorry about that, many people can attest I'm not so good at the telephone. It frightens me.

You're right about open source, strictly speaking. But, see this Documentary Educational Resources discussion and, especially, Brian Flamming's "Nothing So Strange" open source announcement. I arrived at the idea of making this an open source film independently, but when Flemming announced his film was going "open source" I knew I wasn't crazy. Or, that other people were crazy.

So I think the term "open source", when applied to film, doesn't have to mean the film is democratic and collaborative. I'm making *my* version of Blogumentary. I've certainly had tons of help and guidance from bloggers in the process, but ultimately it's my vision and my choices. I think open source film means - at a minimum - you make the footage available and let others build their own version, make their own choices.

A fellow in Singapore named Ben Chia setup a Blogumentary wiki. I think this would be a good tool for what you're doing, trying to come to a consensus on what's in the film and so forth, collaborating explicitly with others.

A key difference between your documentary and mine: You're making your film for the BBS community, and trying to satisfy them, thus the many-hour length. I think my audience is anyone interested in media and politics. I do seek the approval of bloggers, but it's not explicitly for them, not focused on the technology or minutae of blogging. It's focused on the people and the larger issues. My hope is bloggers will be interested in seeing the film in spite of the the initial "what is a blog" business, although they will have seen a lot of the film from clips posted here.

I initially made arrangements with The Open Video Project to encode and host Blogumentary footage. Of course i haven't had the time or money to duplicate my zillion tapes to send them, and I hope they haven't given up on me. I may be more inclined to Archive.org now since I'd be in such good company. :-)

Posted by: Chuck at Jul 3, 2004 2:07:27 PM

It's OK about not calling me. Me, I live on the phone and love talking; I'll be at the HOPE, DEFCON, and PILGRIMAGE conventions this yes, in one case playing footage from the documentary and in the other cases just being one of the usual troublemakers in a loud shirt. Will you be attending any of these events?

Two people do not a right use of a term make. Flamming's description of his film as "open source" reads like PR flack; tack a hot term onto something to indicate that he's hip, with it, and the product he's selling is something special, different, worth buying. Look at how he describes his work as a blow against the big media/movie companies, a chance to tell the full story, a sword of truth that people can use to light the way. PR. Don't ally yourself with that. I stand firm that you're misusing the term, but I also applaud you for wanting so strongly to have your edited-out footage available online or easily accessible. I believe your interview footage will have far-reaching uses beyond the documentary you are making; it will portray the mindsets of the sorts of folks for whom online diaries and daily interactions with a computer networks are both a vital pat of their lives and who once lived in a world where this was not the case, meaning it still has novelty and interest to them on the medium alone. That's pretty big stuff, and in 20 years kids will pull the stuff down on optical storage cubes and go through it with an AI agent trying to find the data they need for their history report.

It's too late for a Wiki or other collaboration situation to help me now; I've finished filming and am in the process of piecing together the footage. A wiki would just confuse things. Additionally, while I like the ideas of Wikis very much, in fact they're applicabl and of interest to only a certain type of folk, especially in the collaboration/creation process. They're semi-intentionally difficult to use, and the sorts of folks who would be contributing information to me for use in my projects (besides the documentary) do not take an interest in having to shoehorn their lives into e-mail messages, much less a markup-filled new media project like a Wiki. Bear in mind I actually do run a somewhat strange wiki for a graphic tool named Werkkzeug, so I enjoy what it is, but no, not for this. My ultimately plan is to take the information in my library (the one on the website) and aim it towards the Wikipedia once I'm done, in other words add my enties to it so that a host of BBS history gets on there, but that's another long-term project.

I am completely confused where you got the idea my documentary was being done for the BBS community exclusively. In fact, when asked, my intended audience is "anyone who has used a computer and/or modem". The actual event of using a computer and dialing in through a modem, I will not be able to dumb down further, but without a doubt, this definitely is meant to be inclusive to people who never used BBSes or anything like them. The multi-hour length is because I am covering specific non-related events in the history and social world of the BBS that would be jarring and strange to put together, such as the ANSI Art world and Fidonet. Since I have the luxury of doing this on my own dime and with my own goals, I can make something that would have been shot down by standard industry professionals. But no, this is not some sort of "inside" techno-fest intended to preach to the converted. To address folks completely coming in from the cold, there is a 5 minute film called README that will basically lay out the BBS framework for folks.... another sign of the luxuries I have enjoyed.

Really, submit to both archive.org and the open video project, which I had not previously seen. I bought a MiniDV VTR some time ago and have been duplicating vital or historical interviews, and will have them up in the months following release. I think that stuff needs to get out there. How expensive is MiniDV tape for you, anyway? I'm getting it at $3 apiece (bought in a lot of 100).

Posted by: Jason Scott at Jul 4, 2004 2:47:48 AM

If you type "define:open source" in Google, you will get a whole bunch of answers scoured from the web. Basically, they all say: "Software where the source code is available for anyone to extend or modify."

Replace "Software" with "film"; replace "source code" with "raw footage." Open source. You can certainly argue the term is being tainted, but when people talk about open source film they're talking about making the footage available.

I just got done reviewing my interview with Joe Trippi, where he calls the Howard Dean campaign open source, and explains why. We're going to see all kinds of uses of open source that - like documentary - will be bending the term. But, I completely honor your defense of the original meaning. :-)

I hope you don't think casual viewers will want to watch 6 hours of BBS documentary. I mean, I was heavily into BBSs and influenced by them, and my patience will be tried much past one hour. Simply mentioning ANSI art and Fidonet makes lots of people go "huh?" I don't mean to be discouraging, I think it's awesome that you're making The Definitive Ass-kicking BBS Documentary of All Time. But by virtue of it's comprehensiveness, you'll be preaching mainly to the church. And - there's nothing wrong with that! But you might consider making the one-hour version for a more general, less-committed but curious audience.

I pay way too much for my miniDV tapes. I bought in bulk once, since then it's 5-packs. Where do you get yours?

Cheers,
Chuck

Posted by: Chuck at Jul 4, 2004 3:57:54 AM

Hi Chuck:

Thanks for your comment on my blog.

Re: Is Fahrenheit 9/11 a documentary or not?

I have gone back and forth on this several times since I originally posted my review. I have seen the film a third time.

I am not a particularly huge fan of Michael Moore's previous efforts- as documentaries. I don't trust him. This movie is essentially no different, except that I think he was much, much more careful with his chronology, his guilt by association, his facts in general. But I still can't really call it a documentary. It seems to me that people want to call it that because he uses un-staged footage that he either shoots himself or culls from the media. But so do
campaign commercials. Bush used footage from 9.11, Kerry showed black and white movies of himself in Vietnam. Does that make those things documentaries? No.

When you contrast something that is clearly a documentary, The Control Room, for example, what strikes me is Fahrenheit's utter and absolute lack of balance. At the beginning of the movie, we see Gore presiding over the Senate process that would result in his ultimate defeat in the 2000 election. Members of the Congressional black caucus voice articulate protest but no Senator joins them. Why? Paul Wellstone was alive then. Why wouldn't Wellstone or another sympathetic senator sign the protests? Moore doesn't tell us. The truth is, Gore asked them not to.

Then there is the entire Moore narrative of Bush's thoughts while he sits in front of the classroom reading a children's book. That section of the movie is simply not documentary. It is fact that Bush sat there. Moore's entire narrative about what he was thinking is crap. The documentary position is: We don't know. I think it would have been much more powerful if Moore would have asked us to consider what we might have done in a similar situation and let the camera's roll.

And what about the idylic imagery of pre-war Iraq? Why show Iraq as some sort of quasi paradise? In an interview with the BBC, Moore says (paraphrasing) that he felt that the media had done such a thorough job of telling the Iraqi-wanna-nuke-ya story that he didn't want to contribute to it. Still, providing even one acknowledgement of the brutality of Saddam would have strengthened this sequence.

All of the stunts, reading the patriot act over an ice cream truck loud speaker, cornering congressman to recruit their kids to go to Iraq are cute. But they are documentary in the way that MTV's Jackass or Punked are documentaries. They are meant to record the "gotcha." What do I learn from having viewed them? Nothing. I chuckled but I am not smarter for the experience.

There are entire sections of the movie where Moore let's the subjects, the footage, the events speak for themselves. I think he does a marvelous job providing a balanced view of the military in action. He gives us a range of characters- from murderous to thoughtful - and doesn't comment on any of it.

He gets out of the way of the Army recruiters. If anybody out there has ever sold something, you will recognize the scene. It's kind of a Glengarry Glen Ross in dress blues. Those recruiters are just working stiffs, schlepping from place to place, trying to close a deal. They go where the sale is. You might say it is too bad that they are prowling the mean streets looking for prospects, but Moore balances it with Lila Lipscomb's earlier comments on the opportunities provided by the military.

If I call Fahrenheit a documentary, it is a documentary of Moore's opinion of world events. But I don't call it that, even though I think it is a very, very important film.

I think Moore's film is a visual essay. I don't think we understand the medium well, yet. What he has done, for me, is provide me with a narrative for my anger. He uses exaggeration, sarcasm, humor, editing, selective facts to illustrate a point of view. In a way, I see him as sort of a feature-length John Stewart. In the case of F9/11, he doesn't build so a specific, balanced case for or against anything as he does use his talent and tools to draw a portrait of a man and administration so bereft of what most Americans would call character that not only can't we relate, we are left with our jaws agape.

Posted by: Chris Dykstra at Jul 12, 2004 1:29:07 PM

Chris,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think we're getting somewhere. :-)

I think the problem is simply the definition of the word "documentary." When you walk into a library, there's fiction and non-fiction. In the world of film, fiction is divided into many genres (horror, drama, comedy, porn, etc.) but non-fiction not nearly so diverse.

I found this statement in a "History of Documentary Film" syllabus online:

Whereas nonfiction film encompasses anything from training films to home videos,
documentary film is reserved for a particular kind of nonfiction, one whose goal is to
record and interpret the actuality before the camera and to persuade an audience to
adopt a particular attitude or to take some type of action as it relates to the subject
matter.

Documentary film has always had tensions between: Social responsibility, journalistic integrity, public education, depicting "reality" - and - Creativity, authorial expression, selective reality, opinion, influence to action.

I think people confuse and conflate the genre of documentary film with one particular strain of documentary: cinema verité. Also known as direct cinema, observational documentary, "fly on the wall." But this is just one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is full of the author's opinion, re-enactments, stunts and all the things Michael Moore does. The authorial documentary, with all it's creative liberties, has been around since Nanook of the North.

Control Room is not more clearly a documentary than Fahrenheit 9/11. Control Room was made by a filmmaker from the Maysles/Pennebaker school of direct cinema, but that does not make it a more genuine representation of the entire documentary genre. Don't get me wrong, I *love* verite, and I did say Control Room is more defensible than F 9/11 - because it doesn't explicitly editorialize. It does editorialize in it's many choices of editing and representation - it's just more subtle (and balanced) than hearing Michael Moore's condescendingly comic voice.

The tone, style and editorial slant of Fahrenheit 9/11 do not "disqualify" it from being a documentary film. We just need more refined definitions - file under "Documentary: Polemic."

Posted by: Chuck at Jul 12, 2004 5:47:55 PM

A couple more random thoughts.

1) I'm sure you've heard this one before - "Every edit is a lie."

2) A scene of a little Iraqi kid flying a kite. What's the meaning? If you're pro-war, it's post-war Iraq. All kites and flowers now that we liberated them. If you're anti-war, it's pre-war Iraq. Before we bombed the shit out of innocent families.

Both are simplistic partial truths. Both are fair game to visually represent an editorial point.

Posted by: Chuck at Jul 12, 2004 5:58:03 PM

Okay, I swear I'll shutup soon...I meant to thank you for the tidbit about Gore asking Senators not to sign the protests. We were all wondering "What the f--? Where was Wellstone?" and assumed by that point they'd collectively decided to accept Bush's presidency, but that was only a hunch. I wish Moore would have explained that.

Girls Gone Wild: Porn Verité? Ahhhhhhhhgh!

Posted by: Chuck at Jul 12, 2004 6:12:50 PM