Michael Moore has been so effective in documentary that most people have forgotten his solitary excursion into fiction film-making, Canadian Bacon, in which a US president attempts to boost his popularity by waging war against the cuddly Canucks. This idea is partly revisited in Where to Invade Next, which starts from the conceit that Moore has been assigned by his government to storm various countries and steal all their best ideas to compensate for decades of expensive failed military campaigns. Into factories, schools, living rooms and prisons he breezes; he’s large but he moves lightly, like a Hovercraft made of jelly. In his hands is a US flag, which he affects to plant wherever he sees a concept that takes his fancy. By showing in detail what everyone else gets right, Moore lays bare what America gets painfully wrong.
He starts in Italy, where he interviews a creosoted couple who list the extensive holiday time they are permitted by law, as well as the 15 days’ honeymoon and the magical “13th month”, which brings a double salary; Americans, by contrast, might get a week or two’s paid leave if they have a powerful union. In a French school, Moore sits at a tiny lunch-hall table among eight-year-olds and samples the lip-smacking meals that come as standard. Then he shares with his fellow diners pictures of what their US counterparts are eating. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” gasps one child, gesturing fearfully at a neon blob of sauce, gristle and MSG.
Slovenia is lauded for its free universities, Germany for its workers’ rights. In Norway, he sees the compassionate prison system devoted to rehabilitation. The even-handedness with which the mass murderer Anders Breivik was treated is contrasted with footage of black suspects being routinely beaten by police on the streets of America.
Moore concedes that the countries he visits have their problems. “But my job is to pick the flowers,” he says, “not the weeds.” It’s a neat metaphor, except that in picking flowers one is also killing them – a tacit acknowledgement, perhaps, that a simple replanting of ideas could never work. Besides, who wants to stare at nothing but flowers for 120 minutes? What begins as enchanting or amusing quickly wears thin. No one expects Moore to do anything drastic – say, remove his baseball cap. But Where to Invade Next lacks muscle. Even documentaries need dramatic tension; this one is comprised solely of contented people being informed that their lives are tickety-boo. After a while, you can’t take any Moore.
The inhabitants of Lampedusa, the island that is the subject of Fire at Sea, might take issue with Moore’s claim that “Italians always look like they just had sex”. Gianfranco Rosi spent a year among the islanders for this restrained, humane documentary, which won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. The main focus is Samuele, a 12-year-old who goofs around with slingshots and firecrackers and seems oblivious to the crisis unfolding around him. Situated between Libya and Sicily, his home has become a stepping stone and pit stop for more than 150,000 refugees a year who are escaping from Africa in overcrowded boats. Those who aren’t dead are malnourished and dehydrated; wrapped in glistening gold foil capes, they could be trembling wizards. The bereaved sob in one another’s arms, if they can muster the energy.
We eavesdrop on distress calls and accompany the rescue efforts scooping survivors from the water. A doctor examines a pregnant woman by ultrasound, then confesses privately that he dreams about these people and their suffering. “It is the duty of every human being to help them,” he says. Rosi is too subtle a director to start tub-thumping but he lets those words hang in the air as an invitation to us. And his editing is eloquent. A signora chops tomatoes in her kitchen as the radio broadcasts news of the previous night’s sinking; “Poor souls,” she sighs. Little Samuele throws up over the side of his father’s boat, behind him a brace of quivering squid. Their wide, frightened eyes look awfully familiar.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe