The Traverse City Film Festival completed its 8th season (July 31 to August 5) screening 93 features and 117 short films at seven theaters including the Historic State Theater, the City Opera House, and the Open Space where Hollywood classics are shown for free at dusk on a 60-foot, outdoor screen. It awarded 18 prizes. Some just dub it the Michael Moore Festival, and with good reason. Not only does he personally select most of the films, he is everywhere. He appears at many of the screenings, dashes from one venue to another to introduce his personal favorites, and leads thought-provoking discussions with filmmakers and special guests. No one seems to mind that there is always that elephant in the room, politics, and in this case the elephant is a little left of the Democratic donkey.
This year the opening film, Searching for Sugar Man, blew away the audience who had gone to the State Theater not knowing what to expect. After the showing, the fans cheered wildly when director Malik Bendjelloul appeared to discuss the making of the movie. Many were brought to tears when singer Sixto Rodriquez made a surprise appearance and performed for his fellow Michiganders. Searching for Sugar Man was just the beginning of a movie-packed week spotlighting Michael Moore’s public whirlwind romance with film.
Over half of the films had their stars or directors appearing in person, e.g., Susan Sarandon with her dog Penny and Kristen Bell, a native of Detroit. The festival paid tribute to the legendary filmmaker Wim Wenders and presented him the Visionary Award. The German director was a real class act who patiently answered some of Michael Moore’s stereotypical questions about World War II (haven’t we moved on since then?) Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat appeared on stage with his wife and son to discuss the haunting documentary 5 Broken Cameras with Michael Moore. He was later awarded the Traverse City Film Festival Prize for Best Picture.
Traverse City just adores Michael Moore. And they should. He has brought prosperity and culture to Traverse City, a small Northern Michigan town located on Lake Michigan. Traverse City had been a tourist magnet long before Michael Moore ever moved there, renowned for the annual Cherry Festival, freshwater beaches, vineyards, downhill skiing areas, and numerous forests. But now it is so much more. I had visited Traverse City three times in the 1980s and 1990s, always a pleasant experience, but had not returned since the festival began eight years ago. Traverse City, always a charming destination, has grown, not in size, but in stature. The best of America now dwells there, at least one week a year. Michael Moore has brought the locals together creating something much larger than any individual could endeavor to do. There is homegrown pride in a magnificent film festival, still small enough to involve everyone, yet large enough to attract major filmmakers and actors.
Around 1,000 volunteers (mostly unpaid) make it work. Some take a week’s vacation and spend every waking minute helping out. Others combine volunteering with movie going. There is a whole list of incentives including a festival t-shirt, a free movie picked by Michael Moore, Swag Coupons for festival merchandise (based on traditional gold stars from grade school), and a Volunteer Party following the festival. Local restaurants donate tantalizing appetizers for the Opening Night and Afterglow Parties; neighborhood businesses willingly provide goods and services needed to run the festival. There are always the wealthy folk in every town, and Michael Moore gives them the opportunity to become sponsors. They have free admission to everything (no long lines), are invited to elite parties, and are publicly recognized. Sponsors donate $500 to $15,000, receive exclusive gift bags, and are awarded two tickets to the annual Founders Party at Ciccone (Madonna’s father’s) Vineyards. But that’s all right, the regular filmgoers aren’t excluded, they are invited to become Friends of the Festival. Film lovers are encouraged to become either a Senior Friend, a Good Friend, a Family Friend, a Special Friend or a True Friend. The annual fee is from $40 (Senior) to $1,0000 (True Friend) depending on just how close a friend you want to be. Perks and privileges include early availability of tickets (though the lines are LONG) and invitations to special parties/showings—incentives for joining. But there is more to it than that, it is being a part of it all and belonging. Michael Moore keeps in touch with his Friends in numerous emails throughout the year. At the beginning of the festival he wrote, “I can’t wait to talk movies with you on the street, at the Cinema Salon in Lay Park, or on the free shuttle bus to and from the venues! And if that doesn’t give us enough time, stop by my apartment any time. The door’s unlocked and there’s fudge in the fridge. THIS is Traverse City.”
As a Friend I am still receiving his regular emails, months after the eighth film festival leading up to the ninth. Thank you Michael Moore, as a film lover it’s nice to belong.