Blindspot 2015: 40 Years of TIFF: Roger & Me

roger and me

In the 40 year history of the Toronto International Film Festival, there have been only two documentaries that ended up winning the Festival's People's Choice Award.  The first of these was the 1979 Academy Award nominated doc Best Boy.  The second was Michael Moore's 1989 debut , which was also at the time the most successful documentary in American history.  Last year, Michael Moore returned to the Festival in celebration of Roger & Me‘s 25th anniversary.

The centre focus of Roger & Me is General Motors CEO Roger Smith, who makes the controversial decision to shut down a number of plants in Michael Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, which cost 30,000 people (at the time) their jobs.  Moore spends the next three years trying to get Roger Smith to come to Flint and witness the effect the closures have had on the economy.

Today, it will probably be hard to find somebody who hasn't heard of Michael Moore.  With documentaries such as the Oscar winning Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore has become quite infamous in the last fifteen years or so for his outspoken persona and films that push forward his left-wing politics.  While the Michael Moore seen in Roger & Me was very much the same guy that creates a much bigger fuss with his later film, there was a major difference here: Moore was an unknown.

When Michael Moore decided to pick up a camera and make a documentary about the GM plant closures in his hometown of Flint, he was mere a merely a journalist, who had recently come back home with his tail between his legs after being fired from Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco (the settlement from a subsequent wrongful dismissal suit helped to fund the film).  Unlike what would happen with his later films, there was no advanced warning about the type of invasive in-your-face man Michael Moore is, who is willing to go to any lengths to get an interview.

In many ways, Roger & Me is Michael Moore at his most pure.  He is not trying to spread an agenda with this film, he just wants to show how a sudden wave of unemployment has affected his town.  The biggest effect the plant closings have had is the increase of crime in Flint, which eventually requires the construction of a larger jail.  The only person in Flint with a solid job is Sheriff's Deputy Fred Ross, whose main task is to evict people who have gone behind on their rent.  This leads to the film's big climatic moment of a family being evicted the day before Christmas Eve, which is being crosscut with Roger B. Smith's annual Christmas message.

While Roger & Me is a time capsule of a period in the late 1980s, it was also somewhat prophetic of worse times to come.  Michael Moore would frequently return to the situation in Flint in his later films and now nearby Detroit has since experienced a similar financial decline.  It was definitely interesting watching the film in this context.

It seems both ironic and fitting that Michael Moore hasn't directed a film since 2009's Capitalism: A Love Story, which arrived two decades after Roger & Me.  Both films somewhat compliment each other and bookend what is undoubtedly a very interesting and polarizing career.

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Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly is a freelance film critic and blogger based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.