When Michael Moore stood on the Oscars stage in 2003, he accepted the Academy Award for best documentary on behalf of his Bowling for Columbine – a powerful examination of gun-related violence in the United States – with a critique of George W. Bush, shaming the former commander-in-chief in an incendiary speech that seemingly divided not only the crowd of Hollywood elite inside the Kodak Theatre, but the millions of Americans watching at home. Now, some 15 years filled with numerous mass shootings, scores of American lives lost, and one Sandy Hook tragedy later, it’s clear Bowling For Columbine was an apt, cautionary account of a society split in crisis – an ill omen that things were about to get much worse.
“We could release this movie again this Friday and it would be every bit as relevant,“ Moore told a packed house at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival’s retrospective screening of Bowling for Columbine on Thursday night — the 18th anniversary of the April 20, 1999 Columbine High School massacre — calling his time-tested nonfiction feature a documentary that exists “in a fictitious world” with artifice driven by people like President Donald Trump.
“I think that we’ve gone through is 40 years of a country being dumbed down,” the 62-year-old said of the Republican Party’s influence on America’s sustained obsession with the second amendment. “We defunded our schools… the arts have been canceled, civics class is gone in a third to half of our schools now… a certain political party took over in 1980. I think that’s really where it began.”
“I think the equation is simple. It’s the American equation: Dumb down the population and make them ignorant and stupid. Ignorance leads to fear, right?” he said, noting the country’s collective ambivalence toward fighting for change as the gun violence epidemic spreads (392 died and 1,502 were injured in mass shootings across 2016 alone). “Fear leads to hate. Trump knew that part of the equation very well. Hate leads to violence, [and in this case you can] use your ballot as an act of violence against people you hate.”
Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker also joined Moore onstage at the New York event for an hour-long discussion, which saw Moore reflecting on the process of making his 2002 masterpiece, which he revealed was slapped with an R-rating from the MPAA for including actual footage from the Columbine shooting. The film went on to win major awards around the world and is now considered one of the best documentaries of the modern era. But over a decade after its release, Moore admitted he’s still recutting and retooling the original version in his head, and regrettably omitted an important part of the school shooting discussion.
“The one thing I left out in the film and didn’t really think of it until I was at the premiere… is girls don’t do this. It’s all boys,” Moore told the audience. “I think there have been one or two exceptions in 30 years. Generally, men commit most of the gun murders – adult men and teenage boys. Why don’t women shoot other human beings?”
The question of gender’s role in violent crimes doesn’t punctuate the film’s pointed commentary, but getting to the bottom of why America has one of the highest numbers of firearm assaults per year is an essential stroke in the bigger picture Bowling for Columbine paints. Moore suggested it stems from the government’s reliance on war tactics to advance its own agenda – something he said isn’t improving at the dawn of the Trump administration.
“Politicians know how to manipulate [fear]. We’re hours, months, weeks away from our own Reichstag fire, and when that happens I really encourage people not to get on board the fear train, the terrorist train, the war train – whatever Trump will do,” he implored. “There will more than likely be some kind of terrorist attack in this country, and I fear he will use that to such an awful extent, and we have to fight that when it happens and not be afraid to fight it… Women and young people will lead this revolution. Not white guys.”
Pennebaker further championed Moore’s largely singular ability to fix a camera on issues that matter when his perspective is needed the most.
“The problem you have is that you see where wrong begins and most people don’t bother to look,” the veteran documentarian told Moore, who became visibly bashful as the 91-year-old praised his craft. “They just accept that this is what we have now and we have to live with it, and you see where it begins, and you can’t keep from going in there with a stick and beating it and pointing at it and saying, ‘Ok, everybody look at this.'”