November 15, 2016

Michael Moore, Laura Poitras, and Kirsten Johnson Issue a Filmmaker Call to Action Post-Election

Three notable documentarians met to lead a discussion on what comes next for socially-conscious filmmakers.

On the evening of November 9, crowds took to Union Square to protest President-elect Donald Trump's victory and its potentially far-reaching implications. Just a block away, at the Criterion Collection offices, notable documentary filmmakers Michael Moore, Laura Poitras, and Kirsten Johnson were deep in somber conversation. They had convened to present Johnson's film Camerapersonbut the evening quickly turned to what they felt were pressing matters.

"Nobody really bothered with [Trump] because I don't think any liberals or Hillary supporters thought this was going to happen," Moore said during an hour-long discussion. "There was no sense of urgency among liberally-minded people. I've been screaming bloody murder he was gonna win. Everybody laughed and thought it was a joke. I'm so upset and angry." 

The fact that Moore was one of the few to accurately predict the outcome of the election was not lost on Johnson. "Michael understood the potential of today," said Johnson, who shot Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Poitras' Oscar-winning CITIZENFOUR. "Some of us were in denial. All of us feel really powerful feelings today."

"We've all met some awful characters in our lifetime, but even the most awful characters have a sliver of empathy. Trump is a complete sociopath." -Michael Moore

But, as the filmmakers were quick to acknowledge, emotional responses should not supersede action. "How do we act?" asked Johnson. "What do we do? How do we acknowledge the capacity of this room to be part of a response?" Making documentaries, Johnson explained, put her and fellow documentarians at the epicenter of history in the present tense. As such, they possess a unique power as social agents.

"There is a state of profound shock and a real sense of fear that these are dark days ahead," said Poitras. "We agreed that it was time for the documentary community to come together and think about what we can do to resist what's happening in this country."

Kirsten Johnson in 'Cameraperson'Credit: Photo by Majlinda Hoxha / Courtesy of Janus Films

A filmmaker's responsibility

Documentarians, according to Poitras, should think about their role as a necessary antidote to media oversight. Now, this role is more important than ever, given the media mea culpa laid bare in the wake of last week's elections.

Of course, this isn't the first time the media at large have failed to accurately assess a political situation. When Moore made Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, "the media had absolutely failed us so brutally in terms of doing cheerleading for the war," Poitras remembered. "Michael really educated people about the horrible Iraq War. I remember seeing it at a big cinema and thinking, 'This is fucking amazing, the power of documentary.' This was a crowd of people who were going to the movies to buy popcorn and be entertained. He was able to achieve that level of impact in terms of reaching audiences." 

"Exposure is a big thing for us to think about," added Johnson, "in terms of what did or didn't get exposed in the lead-up to this election."

In March of 2011, when activists initially began pushing back against the Syrian government, filmmakers from Damascus whom Johnson had met on a previous documentary contacted her with a plea for help. "They asked me, 'Do you know anyone? We're totally outgunned here.' I said, 'I know Michael Moore.'" Johnson called Moore and asked him to issue words of support for the citizens opposing Assad. That day, they met on a street corner in New York. Johnson trained the camera on Moore as he spoke "precisely and eloquently about the conflict in Syria, before anyone in the United States was paying attention to anything."

 "They know who's out there in Union Square protesting. If anyone protests, their face is recorded and their identity is trapped." -Kirsten Johnson

Johnson sent the footage to Damascus. "It went like a flash through the entire Middle East," she said. "People opposing the dictatorship relied on that piece of footage while they were in prison, being tortured. To this day, I'll meet someone [in the Middle East] who will say, 'That piece of footage really mattered to me.'"

With exposure comes vulnerability and risk. "What do we expose, what do we expose ourselves to?" asked Johnson. In today's landscape, footage can be easily traced back to the filmmaker. Poitras has addressed this problem by creating an encrypted SecureDrop platform via Field of Vision, her media publication. But filmmakers also face challenges to their rights in the field, especially during protests. "They're taking people's pictures," said Johnson. "They know who's out there in Union Square protesting. If anyone protests, their face is recorded and their identity is trapped. Our images can be tracked in ways they could never before."

Michael Moore in 'Fahrenheit 9/11'Credit: IFC Films

Talking Trump

The three filmmakers did not mince their words when it came to discussing America's future under Trump. Moore, in particular, excoriated the Present-elect for what the filmmaker perceives to be his dangerously narcissistic qualities. "At least Ted Cruz is an ideologue," Moore said, "but Trump's ideology is Donald J. Trump. That's all he believes in. We've all met some awful characters in our lifetime, but even the most awful characters have a sliver of empathy. Trump is a complete sociopath."

Just after the release of Moore's new documentary Michael Moore in TrumpLand, the President-elect tweeted a manipulated audio clip that led his supporters to believe that Moore—thus, the film—was pro-Trump. "Instead of coming after me, he embraced it and put out a doctored clip of the film that made it seem like I'm endorsing him," said Moore. "I don't think he started running for president to be president. I don't think he wanted the job. I actually know that he didn't. I can't say how, but I know. I know that it was all to hedge getting a better deal from NBC, re-upping for The Celebrity Apprentice. He was trying to pit another network against NBC, and he thought that if he ran for president, for a month, there would be these great rallies—because he knew, he’s a famous person on TV—thousands of people would show up and it would kind of get this juice going." (At his press conference, Trump called Mexicans rapists and murderers; he was immediately fired from NBC.)

To no one's surprise, Moore closed by issuing a political call to action. "They’re going to try to get as much done as quickly as they can before the public rises up,” he said. “We have to take over the Democratic party. Democrats have got to block every fucking appointment, just like the Republicans were going to do."

"This is not the time to engage in superficial bullshit," added Poitras.      

Your Comment

24 Comments

Nice!
But I bet someone is going to comment that NFS is not supposed to post "political stuff"........zzzz

November 15, 2016 at 6:35PM, Edited November 15, 6:35PM

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Thales Banzai
Director; Screenwriter
349

True, people love their bubbles and curated lives.

November 15, 2016 at 8:04PM

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I didn't vote for trump. That being said, we need to offer him support to be able to lead this country. He was elected under this current election system and if we were going to expect him to accept the results of the election we need to also. Hillary did it, Bernie did it. Lets follow their leadership. Once the election is over we are all on the same team. Too may people have forgotten that.

I don't agree with him on a good bit of social issues, however I can get behind his plan for the economy and we need to see how that plays out. He is correct when he talks about why all of these large corporations started to outsource. If he can bring jobs back to this country that is one thing we aren't in a position to sabotage. If our economy goes south our social issues will get worse and more violent. If it gets better then I believe it will have a positive impact on some of those issues by means of Jobs and Opportunities to people that have suffered far too long from oppression.

November 15, 2016 at 6:54PM, Edited November 15, 6:54PM

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Tyler Stooksbury
DP, Colorist
81

Ya, I am totally in accord. I think that we need to give him a chance now to do all the positive things he can do. We can fight against policies he proposes if they are revoking individuals rights and doing harm, but let's not just fight him on every front out of a vendetta towards him.
And let's be honest, Clinton was not a wise choice for the democratic nominee.

November 17, 2016 at 9:31AM, Edited November 17, 9:31AM

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Lester Lauritzen
Director, Motion Designer, VFX Artist
33

I wonder if there are any talented filmmakers that like Donald Trump.

November 15, 2016 at 10:38PM

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I'm not too happy Trump is president, but at least we didn't end up with Hillary Clinton. That would have been a colossal travesty. She'd be prepping for wars with Russia, Syria, and Iran right now had she won. I'm gonna give Trump the benefit of the doubt. He hasn't said anything too controversial so far and his way of presenting himself has improved tremendously. So far, he's not planning to deport as many undocumented immigrants as Obama deported during his presidency.

Moore is a drama queen who is fighting for his life to stay relevant. It's actually quite sad to see.

November 16, 2016 at 12:12AM

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Not sure about Moore being a drama queen. He was right months before anyone believed Trump could win.
'Where to invade next' is a pretty interesting documentary that puts the American situation of numerous topics against that in other nations. In 'Bowling for Columbine' and 'Fahrenheit 9/11' he was merely reflecting (and judging) in 'Where to invade next' he sought to inspire with different perspectives on certain problems.

November 16, 2016 at 11:16AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8473

Clint Eastwood

November 17, 2016 at 3:48PM

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Michael
Director/Producter
1

Never been impressed with Moore's films and even less with him as a person. People like Moore are missing two key ingredients: an understanding of history and an understanding of freedom. He is a desperate man with equally desperate followers who've chosen to make countless false statements about Trump and at the same time ignore massive factual issues about Clinton. He is a parrot of the media, who, this country and the world has recently learned, is an enormous collection of dishonest (and desperate, like Moore) cry babies who would have done anything to see Trump lose. They left no lie unspoken when it came to Trump and, believing their own lies about the election's outcome, were left stunned when the people rejected them and most remnants of the excessive liberal mentality that has plagued this country and the world. Essentially, Moore represents a vocal group of thugs who are attempting to create a violent climate in which government will have to act. Then, he and his band of losers can then claim that we now have an oppressive government thanks to Trump. Give it up, Moore. The people have said, loud and clear, that we don't trust you, the media, the establishment politicians or filmmakers like you who are adept at telling lie after lie after lie masquerading as "art".

November 16, 2016 at 1:43AM, Edited November 16, 1:43AM

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Did you watch 'Where to invade next' or even 'Bowling for Columbine'?
He does his research when it comes to history.

Whether you agree with his views is a whole different story.

November 16, 2016 at 11:20AM, Edited November 16, 12:10PM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8473

"Did you watch 'Where to invade next' or even 'Bowling for Columbine'?"

I dissected this film for a project in film-school. It was nothing but lies and misdirection. For example, the town in Michigan they show giving away free guns, has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.

November 16, 2016 at 2:48PM

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Did you find a cause and effect correlation between these 2 facts? Did handing out the guns drop crimerates? Or was it deemed safe because the crimerate was already low? (I think the latter makes more sense.)
And was the movie about that? As I saw it, it was about gunculture enabling mass shootings. Handing out guns for free is an example of how society deals with fire arms.
I don't recall the movie saying that the crime was high near that location. Actually the whole movie only compares firearm related deaths (murder or accidents) of the USA as a whole to other nations.
Those numbers were no lies.

Except for widespread fear, it seemed to me he debunked most reasons to keep guns accessible like it is with clear examples.

Anyway: "Where to invade next" is worth your time and it is not about war. It actually shows how the USA inspired other nations with ideas the USA seems to have forgotten.

November 17, 2016 at 9:01AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8473

Great post. I have nothing to add. Besides that I really wish there were more Libertarian-Leaning documentaries in the art world. People accept the far-Left narrative as "normal"... as it's all that seems to be produced.

November 16, 2016 at 2:46PM

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NFS is not supposed to post political stuff

November 16, 2016 at 4:31AM

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Igor Matijevic
Screenwriter
103

"NFS is not supposed to post political stuff"

I'm fine with it as long as they allow open discussion. Usually "allowing politics" means you must have a "progressive" (guise for socialism) opinion or nothing else.

November 16, 2016 at 2:40PM

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Open discussion is cool as it widens everyone's perspective.
Even if you still disagree, you get to know why one disagrees.
Too bad the internet isn't always that civilized, hence I understand the a-political standpoint as well.

November 17, 2016 at 9:06AM, Edited November 17, 9:06AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8473

I feel kind of sad that Michael Moore continues to be considered relevant. He has made a cliché of himself as a formulaic propagandist, not a filmmaker. With so many other interesting filmmakers out there, I've stopped taking seriously anyone that gives him credence.

I've crossed paths with some of his people over the years on various jobs. I've talked with them. They have told me in no uncertain terms that the goal of their films is nothing less that anarchy and socialism. They said that they would like to see our political system collapse. They dream of violence. Take that for what its worth.

November 16, 2016 at 10:53AM, Edited November 16, 10:55AM

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Toll
Producer/ Director of Photography
90

Seriously! You are so freaking right. They are socialists. If people want socialism, leave the country. I'm not advocating Trump either, but Hillary is just as crazy or worse! Trump won't do half of what he said in regards to social issues--he overstates everything and our country won't have it anyways. But, Hillary will bankrupt our country, while making it socialist--"buy" "buy" personal freedoms

November 17, 2016 at 4:42PM

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Michael
Director/Producter
1

"NoFilmSchool isn't supposed to post political stuff."

Its very difficult to separate politics and documentary filmmaking. The two intersect at such a high frequency that whether you like it or not, we are going to hear a lot over the next four years about politics, but through a lens of documentary filmmaking on this and other film websites.

I'm glad NFS isn't shying away from these discussions.

November 16, 2016 at 12:05PM

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John Haas
Cinematographer
682

I think he was just being sarcastic in regards to the first post...

November 16, 2016 at 10:14PM

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Craig Douglas
Writer/ Director/ Editor/ Videographer
1617

People are freaking out about Trump...and I'm not a fan. But, thinking Hilary would be any better is insanity...She would take away more personal freedoms than any President ever while tripling debt just like Obama---and all in the name of "social good" yeah, Socialism isn't charity and it isn't "free"--fiscally or personally

November 17, 2016 at 3:44PM

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Michael
Director/Producter
1

Well, about debt: Trumps tax and investment proposal would increase debt termendously. But one would expect the senate to have enough brainpower to avoid such reckless behaviour. (Which might explain his successful bankruptcy trackrecord ;-) )
http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/10/3/13121510/trump-clinton-...
(Proposals are often not the same as execution, I know.)

Healthcare that is so expensive that people can face choices between health and bankruptcy isn't freedom either. In extreme situations that would the choice between sick and homeless (because you can't work anymore) and cured and homeless (because you can't afford a home anymore).
Education that leaves many with a big debt that actually slows their lives and the economy as whole (because they have less to spend) can't be really considered as freedom either.
A social democracy is not the same as socialism, btw.
The dogmatic fear of tax money being used for common good sometimes amazes me. Tell me what freedom we lack in Western Europe?

November 18, 2016 at 11:37AM, Edited November 18, 11:38AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8473

How frightening is it to think that he only ran for just about every reason aside from "making the country a little bit better"?

November 17, 2016 at 3:51PM

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Brad Bingham
Actor/Writer/Filmmaker
88

"Documentarians, according to Poitras, should think about their role as a necessary antidote to media oversight."

That's very rich indeed. A simple google search of "DNCleaks" will reveal a monstrous amount of collusion between the Democratic party and the establishment/corporate media. Use google, do some research.

I recently read an article by Nassim Taleb called "The Intellectual, yet Idiot" and its worth checking out.

https://medium.com/@nntaleb/the-intellectual-yet-idiot-13211e2d0577#.xw6...

November 17, 2016 at 6:42PM

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