Michael Moore may seem like an unlikely panelist at the Other Israel Film Festival, now in its 10th year, at the JCC in Manhattan. He’s Catholic, comes from the not-very-Jewish town of Flint, Michigan, and the Oscar-winning director has never shot a film in Israel. But there he was Saturday night, in his trademark baseball cap and horn-rimmed glasses among a panel of Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers, dolling out tips on civil disobedience to his activist filmmaking peers and offering hope to a crowd of liberal Upper West Jews (think Larry David), still deflated from the U.S. presidential elections.
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Ever since the 62-year-old filmmaker and political activist accurately predicted Donald Trump’s election victory back in June, Moore has risen to visionary status among many on the left. But he oddly occupies a vaunted spot among the so –calledalt-right, an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism. A New York Times profile on Trump chief strategist and former Brietbart News CEO Stephen Bannon revealed his two favorite filmmakers were Moore and Nazi propaganda director Leni Riefenstahl.
“Me and Leni,” Moore quipped Saturday night. “He wishes he could make films that actually galvanize people into action. But the right doesn’t get how to do art.”
Moore does, and his award-winning films, which are a mix of pre-reality-TV stunts, political commentary and hardcore investigative journalistic exposés on topics ranging from healthcare (“Sicko”), the war on terrorism (“Fahrenheit 9/11”) to guns and violence in high school (“Bowling for Columbine”), are proof.
On the “Power of Film” panel, Moore appeared as a mentor offering a master class on how to turn cinema into social change to peers Udi Aloni, director of “Junction 48”; Chelsey Berlin, director of the human rights nonprofit B’Tselem USA; Tony Copti, producer of “Land of the Little People”; Maya Zinshtein, director of “Forever Pure”; and veteran Palestinian-Israeli actor and director Mohammad Bakri. At other times, he served as a group therapist offering much-needed post-election gestalt.
When Aloni spoke of the challenges of working under the threat of cultural censorship — though his film has been widely released and successful — Moore spoke of Israeli society’s moral imperative.
“You have the power of being an Israeli filmmaker in a country filled with millions of people who know right from wrong, whether they behave that way or not,” Moore said. “I wish we had that at our core here,” he said, eliciting laughs.
Moore on ‘mitzvahs’
“In your spirit and soul is that belief somewhere that we have to share and take care of each other, and do these mitzvahs [Torah commandments or righteous deeds] and be this way,” he continued.
If Moore’s use of the word “mitzvah” seemed deft, his attempt to draw a parallel between Lodz — a bustling industrialized Polish metropolis that once claimed the second largest Jewish population in Europe and was one of the last of the Polish ghettos to be liquidated during the Holocaust — and the Israeli town of Lod, where Aloni’s film is set, betrayed a certain naivete.
“When I saw the word ‘Lod,’ [in Aloni’s film] to my American eyes, my first thought was, it was missing the “z,” as in Lodz, and I thought wow, the irony,” he said. “Three of my crew are children of survivors from Lodz.”
Moore, a former journalist, first turned his camera on when he lost his newspaper job and wanted to capture the closing of the General Motors plant in his native Michigan. The “trial-and-error” project became his directorial debut “Roger and Me.” According to the Washington-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, Moore refused to have it screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 1990 if there wouldn’t be Arab subtitles along with Hebrew ones. The move prompted the festival to revise its policies the following year.
“I’m sure I’ll be told on my way out of here what movie I should make next and I’ll say, ‘you should make that movie.’ If you have it in your heart and in your head, and if you haven’t done one before, learn how to do it, the way you learned how to ride a bike — make mistakes, fall down not everyone can do it. But I’d like to see more risks being taken.”
Moore cited Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” as one of his favorite films, which he considered a documentary because it turns its lens on real-life racism and bigotry through the guise of a fictional character.
“A lot of people who want to make a political film fail, because they put the politics ahead of the film,” he said. “The art has to come first. If you make a shitty film, you have not only guaranteed no audience, you’ve probably hurt the cause. So you’ve done a disservice to those of us who care about the cause.”
Moore’s latest, “Trumpland,” features highlights of his two nights of stand-up comedy filmed ahead of the election in the Republican stronghold of Wilmington, Ohio.
“I am that angry, white, older guy from a blue-collar town that Trump appeals to,” he said. “I would have lost them if I just tried to lecture to them. I had to make it fun.”
Irony lost on Trump
Ironically, “Trumpland’s” black humor was lost on its subject, Trump, who tweeted an edited clip and an endorsement.
“He’s so narcissistic that all he saw was the good part and figured I was flattering him,” Moore says. “But he didn’t bother to listen to my whole monologue and missed where it was leading.”
In the clip, Moore says: “They see that the elites, who ruined their lives, hate Trump. Corporate America hates Trump. Wall Street hates Trump. The career politicians hate Trump. The media hates Trump The enemy of my enemy is who I’m voting for on November 8th. Trump’s election is going to be the biggest ‘f— you’ ever recorded in human history. And it will feel good.”
But what Trump didn’t hear was: “And it will feel good. For a day. Maybe a week. Possibly a month. And then? . You wanted to send a message. You had righteous anger, and justifiable anger. Well, message sent. Good night, America. You just elected the last President of the United States.”
Those in the crowd were sympathetic to Moore’s views, but they still wondered how Moore was so prescient. “I don’t live in a bubble,” he replied. “I live beyond the wall of the Hudson River, where the white walkers are, or the walking dead are, in between the Hudson River and Interstate 5, where the country is.”
After the event wrapped, a fan asked what to expect for the next four years. “I predict Trump will be impeached,” Moore replied. “He won’t make it through a full term. He’ll do something. All despots are their own undoing.”