Photos courtesy Traverse City Film Festival
Review by Ryan Wilson

Last week brought the sixth annual Traverse City Film Festival, no doubt the single largest film event in Northern Michigan (perhaps in all of Michigan). Such an undertaking requires expertise, and for Traverse City that comes in the form of Michael Moore, the Michigan native renowned for his acclaimed and notorious documentaries. To know Moore's work is to know that he places himself center ring of whatever issue he's examining. As president and founder of the Traverse City Film Festival, Moore similarly thrusts himself into the heart of the event. He single-handedly picks each film for the festival and tries to introduce as many screenings as possible, as if reminding us of his taste.

Because of this I was drawn to Moore's choices of documentary films, mainly because this is Moore's own genre. Politically speaking, the documentaries I watched easily fit into Moore's camp. But ideology isn't as important as how the filmmakers handle their content. I'm always wary of an agenda-driven documentary, even if I happen to agree with it.

Perhaps the most anticipated documentary screened was The Most Dangerous Man: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which profiles the ex-Marine and Defense Department worker who blew the whistle on five generations worth of deceit concerning America's presence in Vietnam. The film was nominated for Best Documentary at this year's Academy Awards, and when introducing it, Moore admitted that he voted for it. It's easy to see why. The film feels important, raising the eternal issue of how much the public needs to know about any ongoing war effort. Yet Ellsberg's place as an American hero isn't so much paraded as it is implied. The film goes deep into Ellsberg's psychology, from losing his mother and sister in childhood, to courting his more liberal-minded wife, to aiding the war effort in his early career at the Pentagon. We get a thorough portrait of the man, and we understand why he sacrificed his career and risked prison to let the public know what had gone on. Because much of this is history now, directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith don’t need to interject anything. They let Ellsberg tell his own story above footage of the period, and thankfully, he's very honest about his experience going from a hawk to a dove.

My next choice of documentary had a very different telling. 12th and Delaware chronicles the very present situation of an abortion clinic operating across the street from a pro-life center in Fort Pierce, Florida. Forget about stock footage or talking heads here. Director Heidi Ewing simply gets access to both facilities and lets the cameras roll. Without a central narrator, the film tensely unfolds as we see the workers on each side go about their business. Needless to say there's a lot of peering out the windows at the other side, and there’s plenty of subterfuge. Workers at the abortion clinic need to cover their doctors with a sheet coming and going in order to hide their identities. Meanwhile, the pro-lifers insist on showing pregnant women the heartbeat from an ultrasound in order to change their minds and sometimes lie to them about how far along they are in the pregnancy in order to stop an abortion. One expects a confrontation given all of the suspense, but it doesn’t come. We’re just left to consider the strain, which is all the more fitting. 12th and Delaware can currently be seen on HBO.

A much lighter culture war is examined in the documentary CleanFlix, which examines how video stores in the Mormon community in Utah attempted to edit Hollywood movies and sell them. The film begins by explaining just why Mormons would want to edit these movies then transitions to examine whether or not this is censorship or a copyright violation. A good example from the film includes wanting to watch Titanic, but not wanting to see Kate Winslet nude. First time directors Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi, both of whom come from the Mormon faith, fairly examine just whom art belongs to for most of the film. But then the film takes a sudden twist and begins to profile the owner of a video store who may not be a pure as his videos.

Perhaps no documentary at Traverse City entertained me quite like Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story. First time director and Michigan native Lee Storey chronicles the history of this strange movement. You might remember these peppy kids from the Super Bowl Halftime Shows of the 1980s or as the counter-counter-culture in the '60s. Either way you might be less than surprised that Up With People came from the rather cultish background of the Moral Re-Armament movement of the 1940s, which held an annual conference each summer on Mackinac Island and recruited many a young person with its lofty promise of changing the world. One part civil rights, another part Nixon administration propaganda, Up With People was either naively idealistic or as critic P.J. O'Rourke calls it, "insipid…with a magnificent grasp of the obvious." But Storey, who married an Up-y, is tender in her treatment of its former members. Some regret their entire involvement with the band, while others still feel that their intentions were noble. It would have been too easy to simply mock Up With People. Instead, the film reveals the power of pop culture.

Given each of these films, Michael Moore makes an excellent programmer. Each of the documentaries that I watched at Moore's festival engaged its audience with not just its content but with its treatment. Each did what any good documentary should: get us thinking without thinking for us.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m.. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010