Months after its debut in the US, documentarian Michael Moore’s latest flick has finally arrived in Thai cinemas.
After being bored by his previous political satires, I had low expectations last weekend as I bought my ticket for “Where to Invade Next”. But to my surprise it stirred vital questions that everyone should be thinking about, regardless of their nationality or race.
Moore “invades” a number of European countries, even marauding across the Mediterranean to Tunisia, to steal ideas that could make the United States a better nation.
In Italy he pilfers labour-law gems: mandatory paid leave for vacations and maternity, break times at work, and stress-relieving initiatives like subsidised spa visits to prevent workers from falling sick. In Portugal he eyes up the justice system: policemen cite a return of human dignity since the country ended its war on drugs, model prisons emphasise rehabilitation rather than punishment, and the justice system focuses on forgiveness rather than revenge. In Finland he fingers the much-prized education system, where short school days and no homework produce the best students in the world. In France, he eyes meals fit for kings served to children in a school system that’s 100-per-cent free, universities without tuition fees, students without debt, and women playing the role of leaders in the workplace and in politics. In Germany he finds the humblest factory workers being afforded real dignity, and the historical horrors of Nazism being taught in all schools.
In contrast, these societal benefits are entirely absent in the US, the “richest and most powerful nation on Earth”.
The documentary won positive reviews, with some critics citing it as a reminder of what US voters should do if they want to improve their nation for its citizens and perhaps for the world.
New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Centre criticised Moore for neglecting the rise of anti-immigrant nationalism in Europe, but the director has stated his intention with the documentary “is to pick the flowers, not the weeds”.
The Huffington Post had fewer doubts, calling this “Moore’s best, most ambitious, most powerful film to date because it shows Americans not how crummy things are, but how great they could be. And how might we get there? Lucky for us, there’s an election coming up.”
Website Zero Anthropology: “Regardless of what anyone might think of Moore, of him personally or his politics, this film should be seen, especially now, and especially if you are a US citizen who intends to vote.”
So far, however, this provocative and hilarious film is Moore’s biggest flop to date, taking just $897,034 in total and $2,912 per cinema on its opening weekend in the States. By comparison, his “Capitalism: A Love Story” took $57,991 per cinema in 2009.
Months after its debut, worldwide revenue remains below $5 million.
Perhaps the figures aren’t that surprising in a world so low on hope. Most of us are too busy with our own daily struggle to bother exploring the benefits enjoyed by people in other countries. Or maybe we think that such benefits are far-fetched dreams for our own countries, where legislation is unyielding and unchangeable.
“Where to Invade Next” also touched me deeply, especially a scene where a teacher in Germany displays a small travel case. This, he tells students, was all that a Jewish man, woman or child was given to carry a lifetime of belongings as they were transported to the death camps seven decades ago. Asked what they would put in the bag, the dismayed students deposited cherished assets like mobile phones and watches. One, a naturalised German, said he welcomed such full acknowledgement of Germany’s “original sin”, as a safeguard against future genocide.
Moore pointed out that no similar memorialising of slavery – upon which America’s prosperity was built – existed in the US. That lack of acknowledgement is startling in a country where racial and income inequality remains so high.
Thai viewers might also be spurred to reflect on our own failure to acknowledge and account for state violence – be it brutality in the deep South or the fatal dispersal of anti-government protesters in 2010. The 2014 military intervention has brought calm, according to coup supporters, but suppression according to regime critics. Absolute power under the draconian Article 44 ensures business-as-usual for some, but the threat of jail for anyone who gathers to protest. And the clampdown appears to be ratcheting as the August 7 charter referendum draws near. While its drafters have embarked on a nationwide tour to push the proposed charter’s claimed benefits, its critics must be extra careful in their comments or face prison.
Moore also interviewed the Norwegian father of one of the victims of Anders Breivik, asking him if he wanted “eye-for-an-eye” revenge. “No,” the man answered immediately – he did not feel he had the right to kill another person. He was satisfied with mass-murderer’s punishment, the maximum jail term of 21 years.
Having suffered terrible trauma, Norwegians are striving for means to prevent another mass shooting while also improving the quality of life in their country.
Moore’s documentary sheds much light: there are always better ideas at hand to make a better nation for all. But is up to us to reach out for that change.