Where to Invade Next. (pictured)
written and directed by Michael Moore
written and directed by Mina Shum
by Bill Chambers The narrative pretext for Michael Moore's globetrotting that lends Where to Invade Next its title is so low-concept, jokey, and finally immaterial as to be the documentary equivalent of the cable repairman arriving at the beginning of a porno. After a solid five minutes of trolling the Right with an inventory of recent conflicts that makes the United States look at once war-happy and, despite its exorbitant military spending, not very good at the whole war thing, Moore satirically sets off on a mission--shabby haircut, gummy smile, and Tigers cap (sometimes in camo green) intact--to find a good place for America's next big skirmish. What he's really doing is touring the world in search of proven ideologies his own tailspinning country would do well to adopt. In Italy and Germany, he discovers a happy, fruitful middle class in factories, of all places. In France, he encounters a gradeschool cafeteria where the chef opts for fruit-and-cheese platters over burgers and fries and the children regard Moore's can of Coke dubiously. In Slovenia, he can't find a single university student in debt until he happens on an American transplant who owes money back home. In Iceland, he becomes enamoured of an emergent matriarchy, which might be why he recedes as an on-camera presence: to curb the irony of his film mansplaining women in leadership to us.
Gone completely from Moore's work is any trace of Herzogian anthropology (remember the rabbit lady in Roger & Me?), replaced by a pure didacticism that's imparted with the same laboured incredulousness of Taylor Swift reacting to another Grammy win. I've grown to dislike Moore's man-of-the-people affectations; I wish he'd take off his hat to meet presidents. But I enjoyed this movie, as an often-fascinating glimpse into other cultures' values if nothing else. Some will obtusely fault Moore for not looking hard enough for the fault lines in some of these socialist concepts: his larger point is always that the homegrown alternative--like, say, America's war on drugs, which has wreaked far more havoc on society at large than Portugal's decriminalization of drugs--isn't working. (In the case of Finland's abolition of homework, which rocketed the country to #1 in education (the U.S. is now in 29th place, according to the chyron), the proof is in the pudding.) Where to Invade Next is ultimately the "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" jingle writ large, but it's important to keep cynicism in check and remember that Moore's cherrypicked vision of utopia isn't actually selling anything.
While Moore touches on the current race crisis in the U.S., mostly in sardonic cutaways during a section on Norway's comically hospitable prison system ("Are you afraid of shower rape?" Moore asks one inmate, who then points out that every prisoner has his own shower), the aftermath of Ferguson is much more present in Hong Kong-born Canadian filmmaker Mina Shum's documentary Ninth Floor. In 1969, black students at Montreal's Sir George Williams University felt they had unfairly received failing grades from biology professor Perry Anderson and organized a sit-in when the school did little to placate them. Soon they were occupying Sir George's computer centre with hundreds of others in solidarity, and officials turned the matter over to the police, transforming a non-violent protest into a full-blown riot that resulted in the titular ninth floor catching fire. (White passersby below chanted "Let the niggers burn.") Shum recapitulates this history with due diligence, mixing archival footage, modern-day talking heads, and evocative imagery (some of it, like cutaways to a baby, frankly mawkish), but her maddening approach to the interviews nearly brings the whole thing down--shooting them from afar or with long lenses, overcutting between angles, and often obfuscating her subjects with foreground dressing like venetian blinds or the even-more-hamfisted touch of reel-to-reel taperecorders. When it's the surviving protestors being interviewed, the effect is inappropriately arch, like an interrogation. (Cinematic grammar: it's a delicate thing.) Ninth Floor is a timely piece about escalation, though, and significant as a portrait of the civil rights movement in Canada for its rarity alone. Where to Invade Next - Programme: Special Presentations; Ninth Floor - Programme: TIFF Docs