TORONTO (CP) _ Canadians Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine still remember with glee watching documentarian Michael Moore assail President George W. Bush for waging a "fictitious war" against Iraq when the filmmaker won an Oscar in 2003.
Four years later, the husband-and-wife filmmaking team would never have dreamed that their own documentary about Moore would prompt the American right-wing media to try to claim them as poster children for the anti-Moore, pro-Bush cause.
"That Oscar speech _ when he did that, we were standing in our living room literally on our feet applauding," Caine recalled Thursday. "At that time, four days into the Iraq war, 80 per cent of the American public was onside with that war. So it was an incredibly courageous thing to do at that juncture."
Filled with admiration, the couple set out to make a film about their hero, who first became a darling of the left with "Roger and Me." That 1989 documentary centred on Moore’s supposedly unsuccessful attempts to get GM president Roger Smith to talk to him about the devastating effects on Flint, Mich., after the carmaker closed down a plant there.
What they discovered about Moore’s techniques as they began to research the portly filmmaker stunned and disappointed them. Their journey can be seen in "Manufacturing Dissent," a startling documentary screening Sunday night at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, running till April 29.
"It was a slow reveal, really," Melnyk says. "We go into things and start to research them as we go along and start to do interviews with people, and we started to realize: ‘Oh my God, there are some cheats in these films.’ Obviously, the biggest one being that Michael actually did talk to Roger Smith twice during the making of ‘Roger and Me.’
"That one really, really bothered me. Because, OK, if you’re willing to lie about the entire premise of the film, then what is sacrosanct? There must have been other smaller cheats along the way. So that was a shocker."
Moore, for his part, hasn’t commented on "Manufacturing Dissent," suggesting recently to a New York film website, www.thereeler.com, that he’d never heard of it _ even though, as shown in the documentary, Melnyk approached him at various public events over two years to plead for an interview.
"There are a lot of films made about me … there’s probably nine or 10 of them out there," he told a reporter for the website.
Such apparent disingenuousness is par for the course for Moore, according to those who spoke on camera to Melnyk and Caine. Indeed, the couple say the dishonesty about Roger Smith wasn’t the only false note in "Roger and Me" _ an entire segment featuring an ABC news reporter telling viewers how a disgruntled autoworker had driven off with the network’s satellite truck was a fake.
The reporter was a friend of Moore’s and agreed to stage the phoney report as a favour to him, they say.
"The story never happened to begin with, but then to trot out the unemployed autoworker as the culprit _ that really had political motivation written all over it and it wasn’t necessary. There were other stories out there to be had; he didn’t need to make one up," Caine says.
With those sorts of revelations _ "Manufacturing Dissent" unveils similar questionable tactics used in Moore’s "Fahrenheit 9-11" and his Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine" _ it’s no wonder American right-wing news organizations, longtime Moore foes, quickly came calling after the film screened last month at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
Several Fox News shows were keen to book the couple for some on-air Moore-bashing. They agreed to go on a live Fox show _ but only to prevent their comments from being edited to fit what they feel is the network’s political agenda.
The couple came out with guns blazing on Fox’s "The Live Desk" with host Martha MacCallum.
"We said: ‘This is crap. We do not want to become poster kids for the right-wing media. No, we haven’t seen the light and converted.’ That is exactly what they were thinking," Melnyk says. "But we were intent on telling them that it’s not only Michael Moore who is lying and cheating, it’s mainstream news organizations and George Bush."
Adds Caine with a laugh: "I could hear a person in New York screaming into my earpiece: ‘Get that asshole off the air.’ They cut us off."
The couple, in short, refused to bitterly attack Moore, even though his handlers once had them kicked out of the audience at one of his speeches.
"He really is media-savvy so he likes to know where everyone’s coming from," Melnyk says. "So he doesn’t know us from Adam. He doesn’t know our film. He couldn’t predict where we were going to go, and he really likes to have control of everything."
She sounds almost defensive of her erstwhile idol, yet Melnyk is also still clearly dismayed by what she discovered while making "Manufacturing Dissent."
"As a documentary filmmaker, we’re happy that he’s out there ringing the bell of documentaries, but he’s not doing any of us any good if he’s lying," she says. "There’s a trust between the audience and the filmmaker, and he’s breaking that trust, so now everyone’s out there thinking: ‘Oh, so that’s what people do when they make docs, and you must be doing it too.’ And that isn’t what documentaries are about."