Hollywood Squares

Lessons from a conservative film festival


WEST HOLLYWOOD—For a few seconds, the only thing separating David Horowitz from the two heavyset protesters bearing down on him was Melrose Larry Green, a semi-regular on the Howard Stern show who had leapt to the stage to defend his hero. Horowitz is a red-diaper Republican who's made a name for himself as a refugee from the left, right-wing pundit and provocateur; he had come to the second annual Liberty Film Festival to introduce the documentary Brainwashing 201. The protesters were there to stop him, yelling "You have no right to speak!" as they stormed the stage and "Traitor!" as they were dragged away.

Maybe it was the calm smile that never left Horowitz's face, maybe it was the fact that the leftists were such crude caricatures of themselves, and maybe it just seemed too pat that they would denounce the very idea of free speech right before a film about political correctness, but several spectators told me afterwards that they'd assumed the whole interruption had been staged. I didn't share that particular suspicion, but I did get the impression that Horowitz was enjoying himself. Only later did I learn that he'd been sufficiently shaken to leave the theater early, skipping out on both the movie and a dinner date with the neoconservative historian Ronald Radosh. Horowitz has had his share of run-ins with angry demonstrators, but he had assumed that this audience would be friendlier.

For the most part it was. The event was promoted as "Hollywood's Conservative Film Festival," and the crowd was proudly partisan, clapping wildly whenever a movie gave them a glimpse of George Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, even John Bolton. (The easily excitable Melrose Larry seemed to be initiating most of the applause.) Occasionally, during a documentary, a viewer would try to heckle one of the talking heads, in the same spirit as the guy who yells antsy instructions to the characters in a horror movie. From October 21 to October 23, the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood was overflowing with right-wing enthusiasm. According to the actress Govindini Murty, who organized the festival with her husband Jason Apuzzo, there were approximately 3,500 admissions over the course of the weekend.

Those moviegoers got to see more than a Howard Stern guest playing volunteer bodyguard. The festival offered at least four lessons about the state of conservatism and the state of independent film.

Lesson one: If these movies represent contemporary conservatism, then conservatism today has little room for libertarian ideas. National Review's Jonah Goldberg likes to distinguish the "anti-left" and "anti-state" wings of the right. There's no question which tribe was dominant here.

Some libertarian-leaning figures did turn up in the festival's discussion programs: A panel of screenwriters, for example, included Paul Guay, the Randite behind Liar Liar, and Craig Titley, the self-described "Zen Anarchist Republican" who wrote Scooby Doo. But the only new movies with clear libertarian themes were a pair of documentary shorts from On the Fence Films: Evan Coyne Maloney's Brainwashing 201, an entertaining critique of the P.C. campus, and Stuart Browning and Blaine Greenberg's Dead Meat, which takes on the Canadian health care system. Both are rough drafts of features-in-progress.

And even they were given anti-left frames. The festival program cast Dead Meat as the right's counterpart to Sicko, Michael Moore's forthcoming exposé of American medicine. (If you asked this audience which they'd rather live in, a world without socialized health insurance or a world without Michael Moore, I'm not sure the fellow from Flint would survive.) Meanwhile, Horowitz turned his introduction to Brainwashing 201 into a pitch for his Academic Bill of Rights, a measure that could give students the right to lodge official complaints against professors for the views they choose to explore in class.

Maloney himself told me after the screening that he doesn't necessarily support Horowitz's proposal. "I don't think there's anything you can argue with in the aims of what it's trying to do," he says. "I just hope that we don't need to use state legislatures to get colleges to adopt its principles." He also made some careful distinctions between public and private universities, and discussed the efforts he took to make sure his film featured students with legitimate complaints, as opposed to the conservative kid with a chip on his shoulder who wants to blame his professor's politics for a grade he genuinely deserved. But I couldn't help thinking that it was his attacks on the left, not his defense of scholarly liberties, that earned his movie the festival's Best Short Film award.

So what were the politics on display? Some films merely expressed conservative cultural values—Christian themes ran through several shorts—but more often the movies favored nationalism, the military, and an active foreign policy. Documentaries called for reforming the United Nations (Broken Promises), endorsed the Iraq war (365 Boots on the Ground), stuck up for Israel (Entering Zion), and denounced radical Islam (Obsession, which won the festival's Best Feature award). A selection of Kurdish films was presented under the title "Voices of Iraqi Freedom." Mercedes Maharis' documentary Cochise County USA: Cries From The Border, about the effects of drug smuggling and illegal immigration in one Arizona county, made an honest effort to include many perspectives, but it was clearly tilted toward beefing up the border patrols—and the festival organizers brought in Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox, the founders of the Minuteman Project, to introduce it. There was even a presentation on a forthcoming sequel to the '80s anime series Robotech, included here because of the show's pro-military themes.

Apuzzo says he feels "pulled back and forth between what libertarianism stands for and what you might call traditionalism." Murty is essentially a neoconservative: She told me that she could see herself voting for Roosevelt or Kennedy, but that the Democrats became "more radical, and left a lot of people behind." Between them they reflect a substantial portion of the modern Republican Party.

Lesson two: You don't have to be a socialist to shoot a picture. As the revolution in low-budget moviemaking spreads to more corners of the country, more perspectives are being committed to digital video. But if you had to judge from the highest-profile showcases for independent film, you'd think that only leftists knew how to operate a camera. The PBS show P.O.V., for example, runs both political and apolitical documentaries, but the political ones are invariably left of center. This has an unfortunate effect on the program's quality: Perhaps a quarter of its episodes are brilliant, but another quarter are unreflective, robotic recitations of the P.C. line.

All the pictures at the Liberty Film Festival, good and bad, were a sign that homebrewed cinema can be a lot more independent than the independent-film gatekeepers acknowledge. There's a whole universe of people out there who are teaching themselves the rudiments of shooting and editing, making their own movies, and gradually honing their craft. Not all of them share the politics of P.O.V.

That said: Like many other lower-tier film festivals, the weekend showed some of the ways a self-educated director can go awry. You don't have to go to film school to learn to make a movie, but it does help to know some skilled technicians who can teach you how to light a set, edit footage, and record sound. They can give you some valuable feedback and, if you just aren't that good at their specialties, you can hire them. (You'd think a film festival for free-marketeers would attract more people who appreciate the division of labor.) Even a competent movie can benefit from a guiding hand: The aforementioned Cochise County was generally well-made, but someone should have told the director not to give us important information in her captions at the same time someone is saying something equally important aloud.

Lesson three: Ideology and aesthetics don't always match. I agreed with almost everything Dead Meat had to say, but that didn't mean I thought it was a good movie: It was poorly paced, it was filled with production glitches and distracting special effects, and it failed to engage some important arguments on the other side. Meanwhile, though I don't share 365 Boots on the Ground's pro-war politics, I thought it was a terrific picture, easily the best of the weekend. When Kc Wayland joined the Army, he decided to mount a camera on his helmet and document his year-long deployment in Iraq. The result is a moving, funny, fascinating film that does exactly what a documentary ought to do: It documents something that most of the audience will never experience themselves. There's little in the way of gunplay here, though we do see a surreal battle of sorts on an Iraqi highway, in a sequence that feels more like a Hollywood car chase than a war movie. Instead we explore the lives, work, and personalities of the soldiers.

If my ideology isn't enough to make a movie good, neither is the ideology of the organizers. Both Apuzzo and Murty claimed repeatedly that they want to put art before politics, and they did make a sustained though unsuccessful effort to include more films that aren't explicitly political but reflect what Murty calls "classical humanist values." ("We didn't get a lot of narratives submitted to us," Apuzzo recalls. "And we then went out and tried to get some, including some pretty high-profile ones, and people were concerned about the 'conservative' label.") But it's hard to believe that some of the movies they screened made it into the festival on their merits. It's a bit like the P.O.V. problem, but with a less favorable ratio of good projects to bad.

The worst case of elevating political sympathies over competent filmmaking—indeed, the worst movie of the festival—was Entering Zion, a travelogue by the Dallas-based filmmakers Kfir Alfia and Alan Lipton. Like 365 Boots on the Ground, it opens the door into a world that many viewers have not seen. It thinks the world it is revealing is Israel. In fact, what it shows us is the mind of the young American who visits Israel regularly, enjoys the clubs and beaches, and identifies so strongly with the country that he forgets he's still a tourist. The screenwriter Robert Avrech (Body Double, The Devil's Arithmetic) introduced the movie by observing that the "worst offenders," when it comes to making documentaries that criticize Israel's policies, are frequently Israeli filmmakers themselves. It didn't seem to occur to him that the Israelis might have more perspective on their own society than their fan base abroad.

The video itself consists of home movies from a trip around the country, coupled with an Israeli pop soundtrack; this is periodically interrupted by interviews intended to illuminate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most of the shots are pretty hackneyed—the last thing independent film needs is yet more footage from a moving car's window—and when the images are unusual that's often because they just don't work. (Among other things, Lipton and Alfia attempt to shoot a close-up of a rainbow.) More important, the material is presented with little economy or organization. It's a 72-minute movie that could have been cut to 36 minutes without losing any information or impact.

But its worst transgressions are against the craft of journalism, not the art of film. It isn't just that the interviewees all come from the same perspective. (Israeli liberals are invisible here, and the Palestinians are represented only by a montage of terror footage.) It's that there's so little context that it's not always clear what point the hawks are trying to make. At one point, the travelers stop at a site called Black Arrow. I'm not sure what this place is, though I assume it has something to do with the military operation of that name led by Ariel Sharon in 1955. I suspect I should know what the place is, given that someone spoke about it on-camera at considerable length, but the filmmakers' microphone kept picking up the wind, drowning out whatever the man was saying.

Not every film at the festival displayed such technical incompetence, but an uncomfortably large minority did. After sitting through one clumsy effort, my friend Joe Gressis, a libertarian-leaning filmmaker who owns a post-production company in West Hollywood, commented that "right now this whole movement is in the fan fiction stage."

Lesson four: There's no escaping the man from Flint. Forget Mel Gibson: No one has inspired more conservatives to make movies than Michael Moore. From Kevin Knoblock's Celsius 41.11 to Larry Elder's Michael & Me, there has been a glut of anti-Moore cinema, represented at this year's festival by the short that launched the proceedings: Fellowship 9/11. This movie inserts Moore into The Lord of the Rings, where he argues that the fellowship of the ring is a shadowy cabal, that Aragorn is not the rightful king of the west, that there are no links between Sauron and Saruman, and that the dwarves only want Mordor for its oil.

The gags range from the funny to the lame, but the film was more interesting for its implications than its jokes. I won't make too much of the fact that it identifies President Bush with Aragorn, but what are we to think of this exchange?

Moore: So you like killing orcs. It's like to you they're not even human!

First Soldier: They're not human, all right? They're orcs!

Second Soldier: Yeah, I'm pretty sure they're, like, demon creatures or something.

Which they are—in the world of The Lord of the Rings. In Fahrenheit 9/11, the soldiers are killing Iraqis. Do the filmmakers think that they aren't human?

Conservatives may hate Michael Moore, but they aren't afraid to learn from him. Brainwashing 201, in particular, was obviously in his debt. Like Moore, Evan Maloney casts himself as the ordinary-guy protagonist of his own movie, rolling the cameras as officials refuse to talk with him. His narration is spoken in the same semi-ironic tone that Moore has used since Roger & Me. He pulls the same sort of prank-like stunts that Moore puts in his movies and TV shows—entering a women's center, for example, and asking, deadpan, where the men's center can be found. (This is funnier than it sounds.) There are even echoes of Moore when he splices in other people's footage, using clips from Night of the Living Dead the same way Moore inserted Bonanza into Fahrenheit.

Maloney wasn't so sure that Moore was a direct influence on him, though he acknowledged that "if you consume media, and then you set out to participate in that media, there's no way not to be influenced by what you've seen." Moore's more important impact, he suggested, was on the genre as a whole. "I will credit him with this," Maloney said. "He redefined the way people think of documentaries. And frankly I think that's good, to a certain degree. There's really two things he did. One was he set out to make documentary entertaining. And two, he made people realize that it's OK to have the documentarian's perspective in the film." Moore embraced and extended a 60 Minutes ambush-interview style and did his own thing with it, Maloney argues; and now other people are embracing and extending Moore's approach.

Sure enough, Mooreish techniques turned up in other films at the festival. The short Sealed for Your Protection, about the ACLU's effort to remove a cross from the seal of the City of Los Angeles, shows the narrator's efforts to get an interview. And in Entering Zion, we see a soldier at a checkpoint refusing to talk to one of the directors, explaining that he's not allowed to speak with the media. At that point, though, the would-be interviewer does a rather un-Moorean thing: He takes the side of the guy who won't talk. Speaking directly to the camera, he offers some sympathetic speculations as to why such a policy exists. As far as I can tell, he didn't bother to call the military's public affairs office and ask them.

Then we return to Michael Moore territory. He points his camera at the checkpoint, where the traffic is moving fairly briskly at the moment, and declares that there doesn't seem to be any harassment going on, so we shouldn't believe those stories we hear about the poor, oppressed Palestinians. If you find that evidence persuasive, I have some footage of an Arab boy flying a kite that I'd like to show you.

Everyone eventually becomes the thing they most despise, so it's no surprise the right would start to look like its favorite demon. It could be worse, I suppose. They could look like Melrose Larry, who stood up in one Q&A session to wonder whether anyone would ever make a movie of his book Why the Clintons Belong in Prison.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).