A Filmmaker Takes on GM
WILLIAM S. BERGSTROM
Jan. 02, 1990
FLINT, Mich. (AP) _ Filmmaker Michael Moore, who helped finance his critically acclaimed documentary, ''Roger & Me,'' by running bingo games, doesn't think his movie will change how corporations such as General Motors treat communities. But he thinks people might start fighting back.
GM was founded in Flint in 1908, but a few years ago decided to move several of its plants to Mexico. About 30,000 residents lost their jobs, and many of the city's movie theaters, stores and businesses closed.
''Roger & Me,'' a witty, gutsy and engaging movie, chronicles Moore's fruitless attempts to interview GM Chairman Roger Smith about the devastation in Flint.
The 35-year-old filmmaker recently talked about the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the United States in an interview at the area's largest union hall.
When companies accept preferential treatment and tax breaks funded by taxpayers' dollars and aren't deterred from devastating layoffs, a political awakening is overdue, he said.
''I'd like to see GM realize what they've done to thousands of families, people who lost their jobs and their homes, all while GM is making record profits. GM made $5 billion last year,'' Moore said.
But the issue is larger, he said. ''I don't think GM is the problem. I don't think Roger Smith is the problem. The problem is we live in a society that's unjust, unfair and it's not democratic.
''Workers and communities should have more of a say about the decisions that affect their daily lives.''
He said his film doesn't preach doom and gloom, but a wry sense of the absurdity of Flint's plight - and some anger. ''I think that getting people depressed only paralyzes them.''
''Roger & Me'' probably won't change corporations, Moore said, but people who see it could decide to get active.
''They could decide to join a union. They could decide to vote,'' he said. ''They could have a discussion with their neighbor. Even that is rare in the 1980s, to have a political discussion with your neighbor. I would just be happy to see people do anything at this point.''
''Roger & Me'' was a hit at the New York, Toronto, Vancouver and Telluride Film Festivals. But the movie couldn't premiere in Moore's hometown of Flint since all the movie houses had closed. It screened instead at a theater in nearby Burton.
Moore was showing signs of fatigue as he handed out tickets at UAW Local 599, and later alighted from a studio-supplied limousine at the theater in blue-collar Burton.
''They made me ride in it,'' he joked to laughing onlookers. ''It's a good thing the revolution didn't begin when I was riding around in that thing.''
Social consciousness isn't new for Moore. His father, and most of his relatives, worked in an auto plant. An uncle took part in the 1937 sit-down strike at a GM plant in Flint that started the UAW's rise to power.
In 1972, at age 18, Moore won a seat on his local school board. At 22, he founded an alternative newspaper, the Flint Voice, later the Michigan Voice, and was editor for 10 years. He has been a commentator on National Public Radio's ''All Things Considered,'' and has published articles in such publications as ''The Nation'' and ''Columbia Journalism Review.''
In 1986, he was named editor of ''Mother Jones'' magazine but was soon fired. Moore said it was because he rejected an article attacking Nicaragua's Sandinista government. ''Mother Jones'' board President Adam Hochschild said it was because Moore was a ''chaotic administrator.''
Back in Flint and out of work, he decided to try filmmaking, using the subjects at hand: unemployment, evictions, boarded-up stores, abandoned neighborhoods.
He sold his house and operated a Tuesday night bingo game to raise part of the $160,000 that financed the 2 1/2 -year venture. He scraped for grants and contributions to make up the rest. The film was completed in August.
The disheveled creator, peering quizzically through dark-rimmed glasses under a mop of hair only partly confined by a ''Roger & Me'' baseball cap, admitted the acclaim was a surprise.
He gave away most of the 4,500 tickets at the UAW local, a natural audience. There are 15,000 UAW members in Flint, down from 28,000 in GM boom times in the 1950s. Of today's membership, 1,600 are laid off.
Like the auto workers tracking slush into the union hall, Moore dressed to match the dingy Michigan winter: brown parka, dark sweater, open shirt, jeans and sneakers. He didn't go Hollywood even at the theater, keeping the cap and eschewing the evening clothes some arrivals wore. His only concession to fashion was a tweed jacket over the open-necked shirt.
After his fame with ''Roger & Me,'' which will probably be named when the Academy makes its Oscar nominations next month, Moore wants to keep making films.
But in the whirl of the ''Roger & Me'' launch, he hasn't settled on possible subjects. ''I'll get some ideas when I get some sleep,'' he said, slumped in a chair at the union hall.