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August, 2004

Filmmaking and Farming-911
Michael Moore's Abundant Harvest
By Shepherd Bliss

My July 4th celebrations were spent at two Sonoma County farms, where "Fahrenheit 9/ 11" was the hottest topic of conversation among hundreds of people. We didn't always agree, but we all appreciated the sparkling fireworks, calling us to reflect on America and its democratic and agricultural traditions.

Roosters crowed. Fiddlers played. Huge horses carried full carriages of children into the fields. Country music filled the air. I fed people boysenberries picked from my farm. As we talked about agriculture, I realized that filmmaking and farming are connected. We watched the fireworks and spoke about how "Fahrenheit" may burn Bush right out of the White House.

Good farming requires three stages: preparing the ground and planting, harvesting, and the post-harvest. All three stages must be implemented well to get a bountiful crop and then build on that for sustained yields.

I practiced this trinity on Kokopelli Farm in Sebastopol for twelve years. Now I teach it to students in the Communication Department at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. In a good speech or article you tell them what you are going to tell them, you tell them, then you tell them what you told them-beginning, middle, and end.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" implements all three stages well. The first step-too often rushed through by amateurs--lays the foundation for the other stages. If the soil is not prepared well, the crop may not do well. Michael Moore did substantial research and positioned his fruitful film well. When it finally opened people were primed and ready to stand in long lines to devour it. Anticipation had been built for the well-fertilized and well-watered film.

Moore's thorough preparation included assembling a stellar legal team. Headed by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, they are ready to defend their facts in court and in the press. Bush's attorneys have been unable to touch the film to block its showing or to sue Moore. The former general counsel of The New Yorker's legendary fact-checking team led Moore's meticulous fact-finding team. Moore did not leave any stone unturned to prepare his field to be defended.

The "Fahrenheit" harvest continues and looks like it will be long and abundant-a farmer's delight. The film's opening weekend made it already the highest-grossing documentary ever. The following July 4th weekend it opened at more than twice as many theatres, raising the film's take to $56 million by Sunday. This morsel will feed a world hungry for a good taste from the United States; Europeans and others are fed up with America's post-9/11 bitterness. As early as October, right before the elections, "Fahrenheit" already may be out on DVD and VCR, reaping a third harvest. Moore's shelf life as a filmmaker may be longer than Bush's as a president.

But the post-harvest may be "Fahrenheit's" most important contribution. It will change filmmaking. This movie's phenomenal success opens up the documentary world to other filmmakers, audiences, and distributors. Filmmakers and distributors have avoided progressively political films; that will now change during Moore's post-harvest.

Documentaries are "going to be the fastest growing genre over the next few years," predicts Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks box office results. Thank you, Michael Moore, for improving the diversity of movies that we will be able to see. Too many films talk down to us and dumb us down.

A good harvest should be savored, as the growing international slow food movement is re-educating us. A good drink can educate the palette, as a good film can change what follows.

I use films a lot with Communication students, especially in my leadership and journalism courses. I eagerly await the use of "Fahrenheit" in the classroom, where students of differing politics can engage in dialogue stimulated by the film.

Moore is easy to criticize, like chickens. They look and act foolishly. Yet chickens are survivors, flying the coup and escaping human attempts to capture them. They may appear batty and loony, but they can be masters at the martial arts, especially aikido, dealing with superior power. Chickens are funny, as is Moore.

"Fahrenheit" is not a news story. There is not much in it that was new to me. It drew from many credible sources. Instead of being an apple, "Fahrenheit" is an orange. Moore's film is an opinion piece, though solidly based on facts. It is political satire, elevating cinema to a new place. "Fahrenheit" is not intended as objective journalism.

In agriculture we have specialty or "niche" crops. Moore has created a hybrid. He has combined solid research, humor, archival footage, mass entertainment, his inevitable trip to his hometown Flint, Michigan, and his own working class people in a creative way of putting things together. He mixes various genres-including playful comedy and sobering tragedy. The Mid-Western common man Moore has cooked up a delicious meal that people of diverse tastes are consuming at record levels.

One shouldn't just stick plants in the ground. Research your particular place and build the soil. Then enjoy the harvest and its aftertaste. I am energized by the post-harvest of "Fahrenheit," watching the Bushies squirm and imagining them out of office. (Dr. Shepherd Bliss, [email protected], teaches Communication at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and owns Kokopelli Farm in Sonoma County, where he spends his summers.)


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