Manufacturing Dissent and the Quest for Truth By Miriam Ross The photographic image is the modern world’s nexus of trickery and witchcraft. It appears to capture reality and re-present it to us but the image is rarely what it seems. Even though we have known this from its advent we have tried to harness it for the aims of the true and the good. The photograph and its descendent, the audiovisual moving image, continue to instil faith in their objectivity and authenticity. It is within this belief that the Canadian filmmakers Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk found themselves launching an attack on the now infamous documentary maker Michael Moore in their 2007 exposé Manufacturing Dissent. Their argument is simple: Michael Moore creates fiction out of fact whereas they uncover the Truth. It was not the first audiovisual attack on the bearded social agitator as a number of films had previously been released to counteract Moore’s political investigations such as Michael Moore Hates America (2004) and Celsius 41.11:The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die (2004). While the filmmakers involved in the prior documentaries made their dislike for Moore explicit, Caine and Melnyk begin from a different viewpoint. They carefully explain that they were fans of Moore and supporters of his projects until their documentary turned sour following their discovery that everything was not quite right. From faking information in Roger and Me (1989) to refusing the team access to interviews, it turns out that Michael Moore has not only let Caine and Melnyk down but has destroyed their trust in his work.
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When Manufacturing Dissent screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival it came at an apt time for British media. Round the corner at the Edinburgh Television Festival Jeremy Paxman delivered a condemning lecture during his MacTaggart speech where he attacked the industry for losing viewers’ trust. Much of this stemmed from controversy earlier in 2007 when a trailer for the BBC documentary A Year with the Queen was lambasted for editing shots of Her Royal Highness in a way that suggested events which never occurred. The scenes were revealed at a press conference and public airing of the documentary had to be put on hold until the footage could be reedited. This was followed up at the end of August, when Channel 5’s news editor David Kermode dramatically announced that the channel would ban staged shots during news reports in an attempt to win back the trust of viewers. A week later the BBC’s Creative Director Alan Yentob was drawn into the debate after using ‘noddy shots’ (an editing technique to falsely suggest an interviewer is filmed at the same time as the interviewee) for his art series Imagine. On the other side of the Atlantic, Caine and Melnyk were suggesting that similar deception was taking place in the widely released work of Michael Moore. When the narrator of Manufacturing Dissent exclaimed ‘[Moore] uses the tools of the editor to break the principals of the journalist trade’, a succinct parallel to the emerging problem in British broadcasting was revealed. Manufacturing Dissent proposed that beneath all this deception lie the values of Truth, which Moore has departed from, but which could be regained. At the heart of this,
however, lies the problem of suggesting that a journalist trade of truth and honesty is ever achievable when it comes to the moving image. Furthermore, to see this as a contemporary crisis or an isolated moment of deception is to ignore the very nature of filmed documentary and the way that is has rarely been able to remove itself from narrative forms or editing techniques. Back in 1998 the Independent Television Commission (ITC) fined Carlton Communications £2million for their film The Connection because they believed the film’s director Marc de Beaufort was guilty of faking scenes and passing them off as documentary. In this case the ITC felt there were sufficient levels of misunderstanding brought upon viewers to warrant the fine but Marc de Beaufort has consistently denied wrong doing as he believed his production methods allowed his message to be put across. At the end of 1991 the uproar over Oliver Stone’s docudrama JFK was particularly complex. Although JFK contained large amounts of reconstructed footage and self-consciously used various film techniques and multiple sources, its release led to wide condemnation in a US press which felt the film had manipulated the truth and reordered facts. Stone felt sufficiently set upon to complain about this treatment in his Address to the National Press Club in 1992. He told the gathered journalists: I have been accused by a number of people, some of them journalists, of a distortion of history. And, if there is any common thread of attack running through the claims of those critics of JFK, it is a notion that somehow there is an accepted, settled, respected, carefully thought-out and researched body of history about the assassination of John F. Kennedy all of which I have set out deliberately to subvert, using as my weapon the motion picture medium and taking as my target the impressionable young who will believe anything as long as it is visual. Even though various critics have come to Stone’s aid and celebrated the multifaceted exploration of events in JFK, the film remains a point of debate for many people that continue to argue over its veracity. In the same way that JFK was criticised for trick photography and spurious evidence, Manufacturing Dissent bases much of its criticism on the way that the filmmaker’s tools are used.
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Speaking to the Edinburgh International Film Festival team, Melnyk explained: ‘To me, the film is a look at the technique of documentary filmmaking. As we look at Michael Moore, we look at what is truth, what isn’t truth and the manipulation involved.’ What is interesting is that Caine and Melnyk use the same basic tools of documentary filmmaking to uncover what they see as wrong with Moore’s use of the form. It brings to mind the great meta-language debates of the linguistics when they tried to work out if language can be used as the tool to analyse and uncover its same subject. As Manufacturing Dissent progress this quickly becomes problematic as the filmmakers do not appear to see the paradox of what they are attempting. Throughout the film traditional investigative documentary set-ups and editing are used. There are interviews with talking heads and friends of Michael Moore that are juxtaposed with stills and images taken from other sources. Putting these two devices together allows for snapshots of less than a minute of dialogue in which contextualisation of people, place and character is downplayed in favour of the narrative strategies at work. It is a tapestry effect brimming with information and personalities that stream pass quickly. Furthering this effect, newsreel footage is introduced and music is overlaid between shots and added to stills for a sense of continuity. The first person voiceover gives structure to the chaotic nature of this film while occasional shots of the documentary makers are used to lend a personal touch and refocus the message they attempt to get across. None of this is particularly new and bears a
striking resemblance to the formal features used by Moore in his own documentary filmmaking. Many people would argue that Moore has to a certain extent accepted that filmmaking is a narrative form and purposefully uses it as a tool to bring about engagement with large social issues such as the Iraq war, firearms and the national health service. Instead of looking for the most objective way to reveal an external reality Moore makes it known that he is more concerned with positing a clear message. This in itself appears a natural conclusion to the work of documentary filmmakers throughout the 20th century that experimented with using the moving image to make evidential claims. The Direct cinema movement of the 1960s reached a particular peak as new hand-held technology led the filmmakers in a quest to present reality as it was without the mediation of obtrusive and unwieldy camera technology. However, every attempt to present non-staged reality was countered by critics of the time with the outcome that the difficulty of presenting objectivity was recognised. Every successive attempt to recover authenticity such as the fly-on-the-wall documentaries that peppered the 1990s has been contested by evidence that filmed material is never free from manipulation. As soon as a camera angle is chosen and a shot spliced together with the next the artifice of the filmmaking tool is introduced. In his departure from objectivity Michael Moore uses narrative tools mixed with evidence that he has uncovered to produce material that is often succinct in its critique of the world today. In Fahrenheit 9/11 he made a shocking revelation that many young US soldiers go into combat with heavy rock music and other intense listening material. When this music was then played over shots of the troops in Iraq there was a strong suggestion about the young men’s inability to deal with the solemnity of the situation in which they were fighting. This allowed the film to look at the human costs involved for the US Army’s own personnel without being swamped by the overarching images of warfare in the Middle East. In Manufacturing Dissent, similar music is used when the film offers some contextualisation images of Iraq but unlike the footage used in Fahrenheit 9/11 there appears to be no structured point behind the use of the rock music. Instead the sequence appears crass and insensitive to the dead Iraqi citizens pictured on the screen. It is as if Caine and Melnyk have decided that they will use the editing technique of adding music to footage but have given no consideration to the way in which any use of
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music provides an emotive conditioning to a scene and is never simply background noise. For a film that is concerned with the ‘technique of documentary filmmaking’ it proffers little concern for its own manipulation of events. Michael Moore himself is shown stating in one of his speeches that: ‘Film is edited. It is manipulated to project a point of view.’ There is then a clever deconstruction of Moore’s techniques through a replay of the footage he uses of Bush at the Al Smith dinner in which Bush claims: ‘This is an impressive crowd – the haves and the havemores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.’ Manufacturing Dissent makes the point that no context was given for this speech in Fahrenheit 9/11 and it should have been made clear that it is an opportunity for politicians to make fun of themselves. As far as the voices in Manufacturing Dissent are concerned Moore went too far with the tools of editing and strayed well beyond the Truth behind the image. The fact that the speed of storytelling in Manufacturing Dissent is too fast to offer contextualisation for the speeches of Moore that appear throughout the documentary is given little thought. Instead, the speed of the cuts and the fabula of everchanging information and sources cover up this contradiction. However, it is this aspect which also gives Manufacturing Dissent the one reprieve from blindly following the mistakes of Moore’s filmmaking that it seeks to critique. Rather than hammer home their message as Moore often does in his films, Caine and Melnyk have combined a variety of shots and interviews from friend and foes of Moore. They offer such a constant flitting between opinions and stand points that it impossible to pin down an authoritative voice. It is this which acts as their greatest strength as they do not allow a singular personality to dominate. The film will eventually come back to focus on the filmmakers as the final sequences bring to a head the exasperation they feel as they realise they will never get their intended interview with Moore but they could at no point be accused of the same arrogance and ego as their subject. When Brian Winston wrote about direct cinema in 1995 he explained that while Direct cinema could not be seen as recorded evidence of truth, it was evidence of the filmmakers subjectivity. The fact that the makers of Manufacturing Dissent use the same tools to critique Moore suggests that their problem with Moore is not so much a problem with technique but with the subjectivity of Moore that is apparent in his films. A large amount of this returns to the problem that Caine and Melnyk had in gaining their interview
with him. They find this particularly difficult as Moore appears to be repeating the very thing he saw as problematic with General Motors when he was refused an interview for his documentary Roger and Me. At the same time, by undertaking this project, Caine and Melnyk reveal as much about themselves and about their subjectivity as they do about Moore. One of the key sequences of the film is when Manufacturing Dissent investigates in great detail the reason for Moore’s dismissal from the publication Mother Jones. Their motivation for doing this is not without reason; it points out the fact that Moore has not always had a politically sound background.Yet the placement of this footage is not long after they have shown one of Moore’s speeches in which he makes a claim against the witch-hunt that followed Clinton’s oral sex moment in the White House. In Moore’s speech he makes the point that Clinton’s behaviour at the White House was a mere misdemeanour when compared to Bush’s act of war that has killed and endangered millions yet much more US press coverage was spent on Clinton. Moore’s footage appears to suggest that there is no point nit picking over small personal details when greater atrocities are being committed. The makers of Manufacturing Dissent seem to miss this point as they give over a lengthy section of screen time to investigating Moore’s employment past that happened before any of his seriously engaging documentary work took place. Later it is possible to see footage of Moore at one of his US Universities Slackers Speeches. He emphatically states: ‘The question I have for our media is, where were you before the war? Why didn’t you ask the hard questions?’ After a brief clip of Noam Chomsky supporting this question, we return to the same scene where Moore
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continues to demand ‘Where is our media?’ Whereas this would be the perfect opportunity for Manufacturing Dissent to engage with the selfreflexive question by asking what role it plays as part of the media and in relation to the issue raised, the narrator cuts this sequence short by speaking over the scene to suggest that Moore is something akin to a preacher. Supporters of Moore have stated frequently that it is not the grit involved in the details that count but the ability his films have to educate a worldwide public about the world in which they live. It was within this sentiment that Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 that said: ‘Sure, it’s manipulative and slanted – but transparently so, unlike Fox News or CNBC.’ Manufacturing Dissent, on the other hand, seems unable to extract itself from the seduction of looking at minutia when there is a bigger picture to be uncovered. However, as much as Manufacturing Dissent is caught up in an inability to offer an alternative to Moore’s techniques, it nonetheless raises disquiet with the issue of form and reflects debate and concern that surrounds not only Michael Moore but documentary filmmaking on both sides of the Atlantic. The questions that are raised by Manufacturing Dissent and public debates on editing techniques such as the noddy effect are not so much to do with whether or not the filmmakers and TV executives have lived up to the task of their job title but why the public and audiences continue to have such a great investment in the Truth of the documentary. At a time of image bombardment from all sides of the media and Internet, when cheap technology can allow anyone using the most basic ’phone camera and cheap software to doctor and produce new material, we remain caught up in relationships with the purveyors of Truth, acting as wounded lovers do when they let us down.