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A Documentary Grabs Attention

IT almost never happens, but there's no denying it: One of the season's most talked-about movies is a documentary. It was made, moreover, by a person who usually has no fondness for nonfiction movies. ``Generally speaking,'' says Michael Moore, ``I don't like documentaries. I don't like PBS. I think that stuff is pretty boring. We should have more documentaries made by people who don't like them. They might be a little more interesting.''

Most observers agree that Mr. Moore's film, ``Roger & Me,'' is uncommonly interesting. In the movie, ``Roger'' is Roger Smith, chief executive of General Motors (GM), and ``Me'' is Moore himself - seeking an audience with Mr. Smith to voice his disapproval of factory closings and layoffs in his home town of Flint, Mich.

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The film's humor comes from Moore's dogged hunt for the GM executive, and from ironic glimpses of Flint's municipal efforts to raise its spirits in the face of economic disaster. Its seriousness comes from Moore's obvious concern for the city and his depictions of human hardship.

The movie is flawed. It sometimes has a mocking tone, aiming cheap shots as ordinary Flint citizens as well as government and corporate officials. Moore is also slippery about the sequence of some events in the picture - a fact brought out by Harlan Jacobson's recent interview with the filmmaker in Film Comment.

Despite such problems, ``Roger & Me'' has captured the attention and affection of more moviegoers than ordinary documentaries ever dream of. I caught up with Moore for an interview during the last New York Film Festival, before his film had been sold to a distributor. He started our conversation by telling me what a movie fan he was.

``I go to everything,'' Moore says, ``and I think it's important that movies be entertaining - that, especially when you have a serious subject, you allow people to laugh a little bit and not beat them over the head with a serious political message. I have very strong political values ... and I want to see things happen. But I don't want to do it by paralyzing people to the point where they walk out of the theater numb, thinking everything's hopeless.''

It was part of Moore's political strategy to make ``Roger & Me'' a highly personal film. ``I think it's very important to put a human face on a corporation,'' he says. ``We talk of them as cold, isolated entities, but they're not. They're run by human beings like you and me, except they have a little more money ... and we need to know who they are. We live in a democracy. [Executives] control large companies that control our daily lives.... Do you know who the president of IBM is? Do you know who the president of AT&T is? I don't know who they are. I should know! I'm a citizen in this country! I should know who's in charge!''

Was there a danger the film might be so funny that people would get its humor instead of its message?

``Yes,'' Moore admits. ``That was a real problem in editing it, because at no time did I want the humor to be [excessively] flip.''

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Yet laughs were another part of Moore's basic strategy. He notes that he and other Flint residents ``have seen our family and friends laid off, lose their jobs, and many of their lives destroyed.... But you have to figure out a way to communicate that to the rest of the world, because the rest of the world really doesn't care.'' The way to make this connection with a wide audience, he decided, was to leaven the message with laughter.

``Roger & Me'' raises a perenially important question about the relationship between films and audiences: Can a movie make a difference in the way people think and behave?

``It's not going to change things tomorrow,'' Moore concedes. ``But it's a small piece of what I hope is a much larger mosaic of people becoming active in the 1990s. That's something I would really like to see happen. And if I or this film can play a small part in that, it would be great.''

Moore's movie has been accused of unfairness toward General Motors and its executives. The filmmaker disputes this charge, but he adds that evenhanded treatment wasn't part of his game plan.

``The thing about `objective' journalism is a myth,'' he asserts. ``You watch the nightly news every night [and] it's one-sided. On Christmas Eve ... you don't see families evicted from their homes as you see in this movie, with the sheriff hauling the Christmas tree out the front door.''

What TV news does show, Moore continues, is ``the same story year after year: The Pope is having midnight mass; some community has a human nativity scene; or another community is battling the [American Civil Liberties Union] over the nativity scene. Maybe you see do-gooders handing out turkeys to poor people. But the story is on the wealthy people who are doing these good deeds .... The camera rarely follows the person taking the turkey home, to see the person living with plastic on the windows and using the stove as a furnace.''

Moore sees the hunt for Roger Smith, which provides the basic framework of ``Roger & Me,'' as only a ``hook'' on which he hangs the social and economic issues that really interest him.

``The larger issue is that we have an economic system in this country that is not very fair,'' he says. ``We say we live in a democracy .... But if we have [democracy] in our government, why don't we have it in the workplace, in our economy?...

``We're already seeing the various social ills massively on the rise - in terms of drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, divorce, suicide, alcoholism .... I think we're going to see even more chaos among those who used to be the haves and are quickly becoming the have-nots.''

Since such problems are of overwhelming importance to American society, why don't films focus on them more often? Moore feels it's because the big-money atmosphere of the movie world mitigates against seriousness and selflessness. ``They reward you with lots of money,'' he says with a rueful smile, admitting that his own movie has drawn such rewards. ``I will not make that money,'' he says of profits from the picture. ``It will go to the nonprofit group that produced the film. I'll be paid a salary equal to the other crew members.''

This doesn't mean he wants to be a martyr, he adds. ``I want to live a comfortable life,'' he says. ``I want to live in a nice place in a nice meighborhood.... I'm no different from anybody else. But how much is enough? That's the question I really asked General Motors.''

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