Filmmaker Michael Moore is not the type of director or star who seeks to slip in unnoticed to a theater for an advance screening of his latest film.
First, there is a rather loud voice. Then there is the long hair, his trademark ball cap and glasses, and his self-acknowledged—ahem, how shall we put it?—heft. (He could stand to lose 100 pounds or so, he would say later.)
Moore, the director of provocative documentaries such as “Roger & Me,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and “Sicko,” has a new film coming soon that explores solutions to various U.S. policy problems, including several in education, by heading to Europe.
“Where to Invade Next” follows Moore as he sits down with students in France to eat four-star school lunches (complete with cheese course), asks students and educators in Finland whether a lack of homework is the key to that nation’s educational success, and rolls his cameras as German students learn poignant lessons about their nation’s most shameful legacy—the Holocaust.
There is also a look at Europe’s more progressive attitude on sex education (in France again), and a virtually free higher education system in Slovenia that is even attracting American students.
The new film shows a softer, less abrasive side of the filmmaker, whose other works often showed Moore confronting corporate executives, politicians, and most famously, in “Bowling for Columbine,” Charlton Heston for his role as head of the National Rifle Association.
“We had a lot of fun making this film,” Moore said at an American Film Institute screening in Washington on Nov. 16. “It was a joy to see some of these ideas being implemented.”
The corny setup of “Where to Invade Next” is that Moore has been tapped by the Pentagon—pause to take in the absurdity of that—to “invade” a series of countries to steal promising public policy concepts in the areas of employment benefits, criminal justice, and education. (The short teaser trailer here doesn’t do the film much justice. It has played at festivals and is being released nationally on Jan. 15.)
So, in Italy Moore learns about generous vacation and leave policies; in Norway, about progressive prisons; in Tunisia (the only non-European locale), about liberal abortion policies and women’s empowerment; and in Iceland, about justice for those responsible for the nation’s financial crisis of a few years ago.
Education is the only policy area to be examined in four different countries in the film. Moore, indeed, has fun in France, where even at a school on the low end of the socioeconomic pole, students enjoy healthy, restaurant quality-meals, with not a soda or snack vending machine to be found. Moore subversively sneaks in a can of Coke and asks some of the pupils to try it instead of the water they drink with their lunches.
The most extensive education discussion comes in Finland, where Moore chats with high school students with a great command of English. Moore marvels that little homework is assigned in Finnish schools, and in his sometimes overly simplistic style, concludes that that is the reason Finland ranks at the top of international educational rankings.
He also suggests to Finnish educators that the U.S. education system has all but eliminated subjects such as civics and the arts because so much time must be spent teaching to standardized tests. Yes, he oversimplifies some complex debates, but it’s what one has come to expect from a Michael Moore film. It isn’t “Frontline.”
After the screening, Moore participated in a question-and-answer session with the packed Washington theater. Besides telling some fun tales out of school related to his earlier films, Moore urged parents to fight for more-nutritious school lunches for their children. He called for a nationwide homework strike. “That’s something we can get every teenager behind,” he said.
And he called for efforts to help “those who work on college campuses, from the janitors to the adjunct faculty, to be paid a living wage.”
Earlier, in short remarks before the screening, Moore stumbled on the topic of teachers.
“Whenever someone comes up to me and says, ‘I’m a teacher,’ my response is, ‘Thank you for your service to our country,’” Moore said in a twist on the expression of praise usually reserved for members of the military.
Although a generation of documentary makers influenced at least somewhat by Moore’s work have trained their sights on education, it would be wonderful if Moore invaded the U.S. educational system next for a more in-depth look.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.