It was 15 years ago when the release of Michael Moore’s landmark documentary Bowling for Columbine became a national sensation that attracted both critical acclaim and an avalanche of controversy. The film, which focused on the 1999 Columbine high school shooting and the then emerging threat of gun violence in America, won the Oscar for best documentary and functioned as a prescient warning of the American political and social upheaval that would soon hold the country in its grasp. In fact, according to Moore: “We could release this film again this Friday and it sadly would probably be every bit as relevant.”
Speaking in conversation with fellow documentary pioneer DA Pennebaker as part of a Tribeca film festival screening of Bowling for Columbine on the anniversary of the infamous school shooting, both offered a grim assessment of our current political climate under Donald Trump.
“I think we’ve gone through 40 years of a country being dumbed down,” Moore said. “We defunded our schools allowing them to just go into an awful state. The arts have been cancelled and civics class is gone from a third of our schools now.” In fact, Moore was one of the rare voices who predicted a Trump presidency during the election, citing an instance when he was booed for saying Trump would reign supreme during a taping of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. “I was like, ‘I didn’t say it because I wanted it to happen. I’m just trying to ring a warning bell here.’”
Moore also commented on the idea of urban areas being in a bubble. “There’s a bubble in Brooklyn, folks, and it’s toxic. I saw what was going on [elsewhere in the country] and everybody was just throwing a party.” Pennebaker offered his own assessment of the president. “Trump is like someone you’ve given a Ferrari to and he can’t drive, yet he drives out of your life with it,” with Moore wryly adding: “With your child in the front seat.”
Released a year after the September 11 attacks, Bowling for Columbine led to major change (Kmart agreed to stop selling bullets during a memorable sequence) and features plenty of mentions of conservative leaders of the past, whether George W Bush or now deceased NRA icon Charlton Heston during an infamous testy interview with Moore, scored after the filmmaker showed up announced at his Los Angeles home. However, according to Moore the documentary was never meant to be a comment on gun control. “We made it as a film to take a look at ourselves because we were wondering: why us?” says Moore, alluding to the gun epidemic prevalent in America and lacking in other parts of the world. “We’re good people, we’re a good country. Why does this happen here and not elsewhere? Every one of us has the same 23 chromosomes. Canadians aren’t better than us ... though it’s hard to say that now, isn’t it?”
Ironically, Moore points out the reasons for Trump’s election and the lack of action concerning gun violence are the results of the same problem. “I think the equation is simple,” he explained. “It’s the American equation. Dumb down the population and make them ignorant and stupid. Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate. Trump knew that part of the equation really well. And hate leads to violence.” Moore also commented on the recent news about his political arch nemesis Bill O’Reilly, relaying a humorous story he posted on Twitter the day the Fox host was booted from the network. “He was passing me by on the street in a limo, sees me, and tells the driver to screech to a halt. Then he jumps out of the car yelling at me. Someone happened to capture a picture of the moment,” Moore said, adding: “But I’m still standing and he’s not.”
Moore did offer one positive assessment for the future. “A lot of our fellow Americans have come out of the woodwork. It’s not just the politicians who are politically active. [Right now] so many people are aware and participating.”