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The tongue in cheek tagline for the documentary, Manufacturing Dissent, is “It's never been so hard to get Michael Moore in front of a camera.” It sums up with a wry smile the experience of filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and her partner Rick Caine when they tried to make a film profiling their then hero. And while Melnyk is still adamant that Moore has done a lot to popularise documentaries and elevate issues for debate, she strongly disapproves of Moore’s methods, she tells Andrew L. Urban, and wonders how can he be believed.

Debbie Melnyk’s background in journalism has given her a strong sense of how reportage can take a documentary filmmaker on an unplanned journey. So when she and her filmmaking partner Rick Caine had finished making a doco about media mogul Conrad Black, they wanted a new subject, “a palate cleanser” and chose Michael Moore. “It was the time that Fahrenheit 9/11 was coming out,” says Melnyk, “and Michael was a fascinating prospect since we were great fans of his work. We pitched it to CityTV, an MTV-style broadcaster in Canada, and they agreed.”

"she has had her eyes opened about Michael Moore"

But no sooner had they begun filming, they came across their first and biggest surprise: Michael Moore went to great lengths to avoid being interviewed by them. Why?, I ask Melnyk, as we sip Gloria Jeans coffee in a Sydney suburb. “Maybe he knows the power of the camera … and maybe he likes to be in full control. And maybe we weren’t high on his list because CityTV doesn’t buy his films. Friends of ours making a film for Canal + got some time with him, but then Canal + buys his films …” If that sounds cynical, Melnyk says she has had her eyes opened about Michael Moore.

“What Michael Moore does is more about publicity for his films than really doing something for the common good. I didn’t come to that realisation until after we had finished Manufacturing Dissent and Sicko came out. Watching Sicko was like déjà vu … once again he’s in Cannes with a film and this time claiming it’s the Government after him for illegal entry to Cuba. Last time it was Fahrenheit 9/11 and him claiming Disney had pulled out of distributing the film. That’s something he had been told a year earlier. But now he’s even got the Government doing his PR for him; brilliant!”

When Melnyk asks if Moore has done any good, she can’t find a positive answer. “Nothing’s changed. For example, he says proudly he’s helping the nurses, but if he really wanted change, he’d put money into a foundation to lobby Washington for change. In America, that’s the way you trigger policy change, not by PR stunts like giving money to nurses.”

The subjects of Moore documentaries are all valid, says Melnyk, but he doesn’t need to lie to his audience. “He might do more good just sticking to the truth…”

After presenting Manufacturing Dissent at the Melbourne Film Festival, Melnyk was interviewed for Nine’s Sunday (aired August 5, 2007). In the interview, Ellen Fanning questioned Melnyk about one scene in the film where she shows how she and her crew made their own media passes, using the CityTV logo, in order to gain entry to a Miuchael Moore press conference. Fanning suggested that this was the start of “the slippery slide” into the misrepresentations that her film attacked Moore for. Considering that a) Melnyk shows us what she’s doing and b) Melnyk had been commissioned by CityTV, the ethics are hardly in question. More to the point, why did Moore’s sister threaten to keep Melnyk’s driver’s licence? “The last time I had threats against my ID papers was by the then police state in East Germany,” she says pointedly.

"a duty to tell the truth"

To Melnyk, journalists and documentarians have a duty to tell the truth, no matter how the truth impacts on their own politics. “I’m sad to hear stories from some documentary makers who admit to manipulating material for their films, no matter how valid. I was distraught to discover, for example, that the makers of Spellbound – a wonderful film I really loved - had identified the winners of the spelling bee and then asked them and their families to re-enact scenes for the film.”

The upside of Michael Moore’s global prominence is that Manufacturing Dissent is in high demand around the world, and not just at festivals – the level of interest in the Moore slipstream creating turbulence among the Left, says Melnyk. “The early Left is saying yeah, we know this has been going on, but the new Left defending Michael is saying he’s raising important issues.” The problem for that view is that its logical conclusion - the ends justify the means – is the very sentiment the Left abhors when invoked by the Right.

Published August 9, 2007

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Directors Debbie Melnyk, Rick Caine


AUDIO CLIP - Cannes 2007



Australian premeire: Melbourne Film Festival, 2007.

Australian DVD release: September 5, 2007

Documentary filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine had set out to make a biography of their hero Michael Moore, but to their surprise, they found Moore unwilling to talk to them. It was left up to Moore's friends, co-workers and residents of his home town to talk about Moore. In their search for the facts about Michael, they also discovered a filmmaker who ingeniously manipulates facts and people to suit his point of view. Do films like Fahrenheit 9/11 really serve the truth or just create more drama, and do the means justify the ends, ask the filmmakers. They chase an ever-elusive interview with Moore, facing obstacles and uncovering hidden and damning truths from opponents, collaborators and even friends.

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