It’s a little known fact, but sexual intercourse was banned in Canada in 1950. It was reinstituted ten years later, just in time for the sexual revolution. Since the ban Canadians have had to sign a sex registry declaring their intentions to engage in sexualintercourse at some point in their lives. The registry allows Canadians who do not want to, ahem, engage to be spared the come-ons of those who carry the Sexual Intention Card. The card is issued in an attempt to prevent hurt feelings caused by sexual misunderstanding. It’s a Canadian thing.
Similarly, we don’t bowl in Canada. You didn’t know? Canadians avoid any game that involves competition of any sort and, thus, the possibility of hurt feelings. It’s our penchant for politeness — we can’t bear to upset each other. So we just stay away from bowling.
Okay, okay. It’s lies, all of it. But after seeing Michael Moore’s most recent film, Bowling for Columbine, in the midst of a potential epidemic of black men allegedly killing each other in Toronto, I felt like making up a number of ridiculous things about Canadians.
My first encounter with Michael Moore happened when I was an undergraduate at York University. A film course professor sent the class off to see Roger & Me, telling us something to the effect that the film would change the way we saw documentaries. The professor was not wrong. I saw Roger & Me, a film that tells the story of auto factory shutdowns and their fallout in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, at leastthree times and became an instant Moore fan. I was fascinated by the way Moore could document corporate greed with such clarity and witty insight while simultaneously demanding corporate responsibility — in person. In Roger & Me he took his concerns, and his camera, to the CEOs at General Motors, and his guerrilla approach to documentary-making stuck. In Bowling for Columbine he stages a “merchandise return” to K-Mart of bullets still lodged in the bodies of victims of the Columbine shooting. And Moore manages to pull it all off with great degrees of balance between humour and seriousness. I was seduced by his approach.
Bowling for Columbine is Moore’s attempt to cast some critical insight on the damaging effects of gun culture in the United States and the actual damage of guns. He exposes the way gun culture is so pervasive that it does not only drive the American economy, but it is thought of by many as the basis of citizenship. Moore tellingly juxtaposes the killings at Columbine High School with the military industrial complex in the very same community, showcasing bombs built to be dropped on Iraq. The connections between the shootings at Columbine and the major employer in the town are lost on most of the spokespeople for the town in the film — standing in front of a missile, the company representative says: No, I have no idea where the kids got the idea to hurt people. Their lack of connecting the dots might be deliberate but it might also not be, which is really quite scary.
It is not a simple story that Moore tells. How did Americans get so gun crazy? Why? Moore brings his cameras north in the search for an answer and, holy cow, he discovers Canada!
Canada acts as the foil to a bad gun-toting U.S. in Moore’s film. Despite N.R.A. spokeman Charlton Heston’s warning to Moore that the Canadian government hasoppressed Canadians by instituting a gun registry and requiring permits tocarry and own guns, Moore finds in Canada a gun-shy haven. The current boondoggle over the registry notwithstanding, Canada seems a paradise with its low gun-violence rate. But Moore’s attempt to display an alternative to his U.S. audience leads him to a boondoggle of his own.
I watched the film amid a largely white audience who laughed at and applauded Moore’s representation of a peaceful, non-violent Canada. Moore showcased our apparent lack of ghettos and friendly citizenry. Now, it is true that this recent spate of gun violence erupted after Moore’s film was complete. But what is troubling about the film is its shallowhandling of social issues related to gun culture in Canada. Moore speaks to hunters, goes shopping for bullets at the friendly Canadian Wal-mart and interviews some folks in a bar in Windsor. But he does not ask much about gun-related crime or gundeaths in Canada. Instead, he roams some streets in Toronto and finds some unlocked doors and passes off Canada as safe and sound.
The depiction of Canada left me flat. Why didn’t Moore probe the pernicious effects of gun culture in Canada? Didn’t he wonder why we needed a gun registry? Such questions might have produced a different Canada from the one in the film. How did Salter Street Films — the Canadian company that co-produced the film — allow such seeming oversight?
Must be for the same reason the audience was laughing. Canadians love to see themselves on the big screen, favourably compared the U.S. Who wouldn’t? And, yes, crime in Toronto and Canada does not look like crime in many majorU.S. cities. And, yes, our ghettos might not be comparable to U.S. ghettos. Good. But when Moore tries to pass off the densely populated, mixed-income neighbourhood some call “Co-op City,” just south of the St.Lawrence Market in Toronto, as a ghetto, it’s downright cinematicallydishonest. And it undermines his credibility.
As black men allegedly shoot and kill each other in Toronto, how do we ignore gun violence here? How do we ignore the violence of racism, internalized and systemic, that breeds violence? Did all this just begin a few months ago? Or is there a history of violence and guns worth exploring in Canada, too, that goes beyond hunting deer and geese?
After all, there are shootings. There are killings. Many people of colour experience Toronto and Canada as violent, but not from the assumed usual suspects. Rather they find it violent from those in authority, like the police. Did not Moorecome across all the police killings of black men and other men of colourin his research on gun violence in Canada? Or does police gun violence notcount?
As violence of various sorts continue to erupt across North America post-September-11, many are looking for alternatives to a culture of violence. Moore’sfilm offers important insights into why U.S. citizens would collectivelysupport violent responses to the world we currently live in. But asprogressive U.S. citizens, and we must count Moore among them, look aroundthe world for alternatives to their country’s behavior, they should be wary of romanticizing other places without doing the hard work of looking at how the ravages of global capital have brought similar conditions to many places. In the U.S., globalization’s intensification has impacted the working poor and people of colour most harshly. In Canada, many experience globalization as a kind of low-intensity warfare. Aperpetual housing shortage, police brutality to keep folks in their placeand a neo-conservative re-ordering at both the provincials and federallevels of government, decidedly transferring wealth from the already poorto the already rich — this is our experience of violence.
Moore’s work has always been incredible in its ability to popularize and expose the relationship between big business, class oppression and racism. His work speaks to an audience that many on the left have just not been able to reach. We have to grapple withMoore’s films because he has an audience whose ear it is worth having. That’s why we must take seriously the portrayal we see on the screen. There is something at stake when we refuse to see ourselves, our own violent culture.
Moore should know better, and so should his Canadians audiences.