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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 9/21/14

13 Rules for Making Documentary Films

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Cross-posted from Reader Supported News

By *Michael Moore

Michael Moore.
Michael Moore.
(Image by (photo: Scott McDermott/Guardian UK))
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The following is the text of a speech Michael Moore gave at Toronto International Film Festival this month.

1. My number one guiding principle in making documentary films is essentially the "Fight Club" Rule.

What is the first rule of "Fight Club"? The first rule of Fight Club is: "Don't talk about 'Fight Club.'" The first rule of documentaries is: Don't make a documentary -- make a MOVIE. Stop making documentaries. Start making movies. You've chosen this art form -- the cinema, this incredible, wonderful art form, to tell your story. You didn't have to do that.

If you want to make a political speech, you can join a party, you can hold a rally. If you want to give a sermon, you can go to the seminary, you can be a preacher. If you want to give a lecture, you can be a teacher. But you've not chosen any of those professions. You have chosen to be filmmakers and to use the form of Cinema. So make a MOVIE. This word "documentarian" -- I am here today to declare that word dead. That word is never to be used again. We are not documentarians, we are filmmakers. Scorsese does not call himself a "fictionatarian." So why do we make up a word for ourselves? We do not need to ghettoize ourselves. We are already in the ghetto. We do not need to build a bigger ghetto. You are filmmakers. Make a film, make a movie. People love going to the movies. It's a great American/Canadian tradition, going to the movies. Why wouldn't you want to make a *movie*? Because if you made a *movie*, people might actually go see your documentary!

Seriously, if you have a hard time calling yourself simply a "filmmaker," then why are you in this business? Many of you will say, "Well, I make documentaries because I think people should know about global warming! They should know about the War of 1812! The public must be taught to use forks, not knives! This is why I make documentaries!" Oh, you do, do you? Listen to yourselves. You sound like a scold. Like you're Mother Superior with a wooden ruler in your hand. "I Am The One Who Knows All And Must Impart My Wisdom To The Masses Or At Least To Those Who Watch PBS!"

Really? Oh, now I get it. This is why tens of millions flock to the theaters each week to watch documentaries -- because they are just dying to be told what to do and how to behave. At that point, you aren't even documentarians -- you're Baptist preachers.

And the audience, the people who've worked hard all week -- it's Friday night, and they want to go to the movies. They want the lights to go down and be taken somewhere. They don't care whether you make them cry, whether you make them laugh, whether you even challenge them to think -- but damn it, they don't want to be lectured, they don't want to see our invisible wagging finger popping out of the screen. They want to be entertained.

And there, I said it -- the big dirty word of documentary filmmaking. Entertained. "Oh no, what have I done?! I made an entertaining documentary! Oh please forgive me for cheapening my story by adhering to the tenets of entertainment! DAMN YOU, ENTERTAINMENT!"

When Kevin Rafferty and his brother made The Atomic Cafe in 1982, this is where the light bulb first went off for me. They compiled all these clips from all the scare movies of the Cold War era, the "duck and cover" films. The Atomic Cafe was such a funny film -- yet it was about the end of the world, it was about us blowing ourselves up -- and audiences laughed hysterically throughout it.

But the laughter served a much greater purpose. Laughter is a way, first of all, to alleviate the pain of what you know to be the truth. And if we're trying to be truth tellers as filmmakers, then for God's sake, what is wrong with giving the audience a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down? It's hard enough for people to have to think about these issues and grapple with them, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with letting them laugh, because laughter is cathartic.

Also, I don't want people leaving the theater depressed after my movies. I want them angry. Depressed is a passive emotion. Anger is active. Anger will mean that maybe 5 percent, 10 percent of that audience will get up and say, "I gotta do something. I'm going to tell others about this. I'm going to go look up more about this on the Internet. I'm gonna join a group and fight this!"

Or, in the case of Quentin Tarantino, who was the president of the jury at Cannes when the jury gave Fahrenheit 9/11 the Palme d'Or, he said to me at the dinner afterwards, "I've got to tell you what your film really did for me. I've never voted in my life, in fact, I've never even registered to vote -- but the first thing I'm going to do when I get back to LA is register to vote." And I said, "Wow, what you just said to me is more important than this Palme d'Or. Because if what you're going to do is multiplied by another million or 10 million people who see this film -- man oh man. I will feel great that I have lived this long to make this movie and see this happen."

I think it's the humor that gets people there. Satire used to be a great way to make a political statement, but a while back the Left lost its sense of humor, and then you weren't supposed to be funny anymore. When I had my TV show, on the first day in the writer's room, I said, "Let's write down the list of all the things that you're not supposed to be funny about, and then we're going to do stories that use humor to say the things we want to say about each of those issues."

So we made a list: the Holocaust, AIDS, child abuse. I know what you're thinking -- let's make a funny film about child abuse? Seriously? What are you talking about? Well, of course we're not making a "funny" film about child abuse -- but if humor can be used in a devastating fashion to shake people out of their seats and do something, well, it will be worth it. Humor can be devastating. Humor, ridicule, can be a very sharp edged sword to go after those in power, to go after those who are hurting others.

I don't understand why more people don't do this -- use humor in their documentaries. I also don't understand why so many documentary filmmakers think that the politics or the message of their films is the top priority, rather than the art of cinema, and making a good crackerjack of a movie. The art of the movie is more important to me than the politics. Yeah, you heard me say that. The politics is secondary. The art is first. Why? Because if I make a shitty film, the politics aren't going to get through to anyone. If I ignore the art, if I have not respected the concept of cinema, and if I haven't understood why people love to go to the movies, nobody is going to hear a damn word about the politics and nothing is going to change. So the art has to come first. It has to be a movie first, not a documentary.

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