Helmer hosts second edition of Traverse City Film Festival

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Michael Moore has found a place where controversy won’t follow him.

Here in the northwest corner of his home state of Michigan, an area residents say has been historically a Republican bastion and where Moore has lived full-time since 2002, it’s difficult to find anyone to bash — publicly at least — a guy who many would consider the nation’s leading Bush-basher.

After keeping a low public profile in the two years since his “Fahrenheit 9/11” media blitz, Moore last week hosted the second edition of the Traverse City Film Festival. The sked included a diverse mix of pics that recently played other fests: Jeff Goldblum’s mockumentary “Pittsburgh,” Jeff Garlin’s “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” “This Film is Not Yet Rated”; recent specialty releases “Little Miss Sunshine,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” Woody Allen’s “Scoop” and the docs “The War Tapes” and “Wordplay”; and older titles such as the salute to Stanley Kubrick with “A Clockwork Orange” and “Full Metal Jacket,” “Amadeus,” “L’America” and “Spartacus.”

The biggest coup on the sked, though, was getting 20th Century Fox’s “Borat,” the Sacha Baron Cohen laffer helmed by Larry Charles. Pic won’t officially premiere until next month at the Toronto Film Festival, but the Traverse City screening was its first showing in front of a paying aud.

Moore’s involvement had convinced many filmmakers to make the trek to Traverse City. (There are no direct flights, for your information, from L.A. to Traverse City.) David O. Russell brought his “Three Kings” and “Flirting with Disaster.” Malcolm McDowell was there for “Clockwork,” Matthew Modine for “Full Metal Jacket,” Jeff Daniels (a Michigan native) came with “The Squid and the Whale,” Lawrence Bender supported four showings of “An Inconvenient Truth” and Terry George was on-hand with “Hotel Rwanda.”

The fest was nearly twice the size as its debut last summer, and still nearly every screening — 77 out of 88 paid shows — were sell-outs. With final tallies still being made on Sunday, the fest sold around 71,000 tickets.

“For so many foreign films, documentaries and American independents to have sold out screenings here in middle America, where there isn’t an arthouse within 250 miles, I hope that would send a message that people everywhere just want to see a good movie,” Moore said.

Moore started the fest last year with two friends who also live in the area, Doug Stanton, an author whose books include “In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis,” and photographer John Williams.

Moore says he has no aspirations for Traverse City to go the way of Sundance. “I like it just the way it is,” Moore said, “a small town that has world-class filmmakers bringing their films to people who rarely get to see these kinds of movies.”

The first time around, the fest sparked plenty of local controversy.

Letters poured into the Record-Eagle, the town’s paper, debating whether the fest was an albatross or an asset to the community. A protest festival was organized as “Freedom FilmFest,” whose tone was set by offerings such as Michael Wilson’s 2004 docu, “Michael Moore Hates America.” That fest didn’t return this year, but the Traverse City Film Festival has announced that it will become a permanent annual event, with the formation of a foundation whose members include Harvey Weinstein and former Republican Michigan Gov. William Milliken.

“Last year, the local conservatives got very upset. They thought it was going to be the Havana Film Festival,” Moore said during a panel discussion. “Now, we’re in our second year, the Freedom Festival has died and there’s no opposition.”

Last year’s controversy clearly dissipated. Even the local Republican Action Center, which hosted a George W. Bush campaign stop in 2004, the person who picked up the phone would not comment on the fest beyond, “I don’t think there is a reaction.” They then hung up.

Moore said that on the eve of the festival that he was getting hugs from Republicans on the streets of Traverse City. That may be going too far, but during the fest, when Moore walks a short distance — say from the State Theater to Amical, a restaurant two doors down that served as something of a headquarters for Moore and the filmmakers he brought in from out of town — he can’t walk without getting plenty of attention.

The free open air screenings by the bay, which each night attracted crowds of several thousand people, are especially popular with residents. One man, who declined to be named, said he was a fan of Moore’s first pic “Roger & Me,” because he knew people who lost their jobs when the auto industry uprooted, but the he parted ways with him on his latter films “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit.” Still, he had brought his wife and kids downtown for the outdoor screening of “The Wizard of Oz” along with about 5,000 others. “He’s just being neighborly,” he said of Moore’s fest.

Crowds were largely made up of the types you might imagine reach for the checkbooks during their local NPR pledge drive — of course, in Traverse City, the “listener-supported radio” is WLJN, which stands for “We’re Lifting Jesus’ Name.” The most frequently seen political slogan during the fest was “Yes on One!” referring to Tuesday’s city referendum on financing a development in town that will include a parking garage, condos and storefronts. (“It’s highly divisive,” Mayor Linda Smyka said; she supports it, Moore doesn’t.)

Talk to year-round residents, and the main complaints you’ll hear are about the lack of jobs, the price of gas, and housing costs going up because out-of-towners are snapping up second homes. Throughout the gorgeous wooded area around Grand Traverse Bay, an inlet of Lake Michigan, there’s a local saying, “A view of the bay is half your pay.” Summer tourism is the area’s biggest industry, though this close to Canada, the warm weather only lasts from June through Labor Day. But like other resort areas, there’s a bit of tension between the locals and the visitors. Here, the derogatory local term for tourists is “fudgies,” because of the voracious out-of-town appetite that keeps numerous fudge shops in business.

Still, it would appear that commerce trumps politics. “We’re always happy to bring more people to Traverse City because we have a very limited tourist season,” the mayor said. “(Moore) came before the city commission along with his co-founders, who are local folks, and was very cooperative. His phrase was ‘just films.’ We trusted him and he came through and we’re very pleased.”

While the fest is publicly positioned as non-partisan — “Just Good Movies” is its official slogan — the Bush Administration frequently came in for a drubbing in panels and Q&As.

At a Friday panel, “Borat” helmer Charles gave the audience a brief history of recent American politics whose plot points were the former head of the secret police (George H. W. Bush) appointing his son to be his successor (George W.), but only after his other son (Jeb), swung the election because he was governor of the deciding state. “You wouldn’t think I was talking about America,” he said.

Moore followed that up by pointing out that America was built on the “genocide” of Native Americans and the slavery of Africans.

But for the most part, Moore spent the week keeping a hectic schedule running from venue to venue to introduce films and host panels, back to Amical to make sure that the folks who flew in from Hollywood weren’t getting bored, and overseeing logistical details. At a meeting with the fest’s core staff, the first item — and the biggest — concerned swapping out the projector from the theater where “Borat” would screen for one with a brighter bulb.

He did, however, face a brouhaha over the doc “Jesus Camp.”

Magnolia topper Eamon Bowles, who had just acquired the doc by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady which looks at a Christian summer camp in North Dakota, accused Moore of not pulling the pic from the fest sked. Bowles had been quoted saying he didn’t want the pic to play Traverse City because he thought that it would hurt his chances of marketing it to Christians.

But Moore said he didn’t learn about Magnolia’s objections until he received a fax from Bowles at 4 p.m. Thursday. The story gained media traction when the Drudge Report Web site linked to a story Friday noting Magnolia’s objections.

“It’s just that in this media age, Michael Moore’s endorsement is going to turn off tens of millions of people,” Bowles told Daily Variety. “For a lot of them, it’s a little north of getting an endorsement from Satan.”

A visibly angry Moore said the doc’s producers and their rep John Sloss, had begged him in April to show “Jesus.” He saw it and agreed, and a tape was sent to the fest.

Bowles said that when he made the deal to pick up the doc in late June, he said he didn’t want it in the fest.

From here, things get hazy. Bowles said he didn’t attempt to speak to Moore or anyone else with the fest, leaving it to Sloss and the producers. “I had a meeting with the filmmakers here in our office and they said that Michael Moore wanted to play the film and I said bad idea. I assumed that it had been done.”

Moore noted that he didn’t think the doc has any chance of attracting a Christian aud. “It’s just wrong thinking. They need to come up with a better plan. It’s perhaps the most left-wing film of the year and anyone who sees it will know it. It’s a powerful look at the Christian Right. You see them training their children as little jihadists.”

But it’s also, according to Moore, the latest example of someone else using him to drum up publicity. “There’s a fictional Michael Moore that is written about and stories are created about,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me anymore because I’ve learned to take it just as a piece of entertainment, where there’s this character created by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and they add little fictions to him every now and then, and it’s kind of funny to watch this guy, but it’s not me.” He believes that he’s a target because his name makes news. “Because you guys,” he said, referring to the media, “the word Michael Moore, bingo, that’s news.”

On closing night, with the new projector successfully installed, the line for “Borat” stretched all the way down Front Street and around the corner, nearly all the way to the bay. The pic is still unfinished — a digital copy was shown and things like closing credits weren’t yet final. But the audience gave the pic a standing ovation that lasted until Moore dragged out Charles to take a bow. Unable, he said, to answer any press questions before the pic’s Toronto preem, he then went out to the theater lobby and greeted enthused aud members.

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