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Culture: Under the gun; Mike Davies goes bowling with Michael Moore and, below, he reviews his new documentary film.

Byline: Mike Davies

In his first documentary feature, Roger & Me, Michael Moore took on General Motors over their plans to close down their plant in his hometown of Flint, Michigan.

In The Big One he stuck it to corporate America. For his latest, Bowling For Columbine, he sets his sights even wider. Spurred by the shootings at Columbine High School, Moore set about examining nothing less than the American thirst for violence and its use as a means to an end.

'I've been thinking about this since I was a kid. You can't help but think about it if you grew up in the United States. I have clear memories of sitting on the living-room floor on Sunday, November 25, 1963, at around two in the afternoon. My mother is vacuuming the carpet and I'm sitting on the floor close to the TV so that I can hear it.

'They're bringing Lee Harvey Oswald into the garage in Dallas, when Jack Ruby steps forward, puts the gun in his ribs and shoots him live on TV. That's the first one I witnessed.

'Then I remember walking out of Mass on Holy Thursday on April 4 1968. One of the dads had gone to the car to warm it up while we were all coming out of the church. He has the radio on and hears the news bulletin and he shouts out of the car they've just shot Martin Luther King! And a cheer goes up among the people coming out of church. I was 13 years old, and this stuff just burned in my head.

'Then one day you walk into work and everybody's gathered around the TV because kids are running out of a building with their hands above their heads. That's the first image I remember - the kids at Columbine running out with their hands above their heads because they were all suspects. They were all potentially guilty.

'That image, and the police with their guns trained on these kids, lining them up. You don't really see those shots any more because we don't want to reveal that that's what we think of our children, that they all could potentially do this because that's what we actually know instinctively as Americans. These weren't monsters. These were normal kids and it really could happen to anybody.'

Bowling For Columbine may be sprawling as it stretches out to encompass everything from the Columbine shootings to the welfare to work programme and the government and media's propagation of America's fear of the non-white, but it's clearly touched a nerve and speaks to a far bigger audience than one might have assumed in the current post-9/11 climate of gungho sabre-rattling. In its fourth week of release it broke the record for the most successful documentary previously set by Roger & Me.

'They did a poll of people coming out to see who's actually going. And over 50 per cent of the people they asked were people who'd never gone to a documentary in a movie theatre. It's reaching a much wider audience than one would expect with this kind of film-making.

'The same thing has happened with my book Stupid White Men (which the publishers originally tried to bury because of its criticism of George Bush). It's now been 32 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list - it's the year's largest-selling non-fiction book in America. I quote those numbers not to give you the sales statistics but to tell you that you're not looking at a fringe American. I am someone who I believe to be in the majority. 'We are filled with discontent, don't like what's going on, don't want a war with Iraq, did not elect the man who sits in the White House. There are millions of people who feel the way I feel about these things - we just don't have a voice. We don't own the media, we don't have a means to communicate with each other.

'The Internet has given us a way to do that, and it's been a great way for me to talk to people who support the things that I'm doing, but I hold out this sliver of hope that things could be better.'

There are some powerful, resonating moments in the film. Theinterview with National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston in which he seeks to put the blame for America's high number of gun-related murders on the nation's mixed ethnicity. The statistics that show Canada to have as high a ratio of guns to households as the US but a tiny fraction of the gun murders. But what effect does any of this really have?

'You're speaking to an American who has extremely low expectations. I have to have because otherwise I would just give up in utter despair. If ten per cent of the American audience leaves the theatre thinking about what I've said then I've scored a huge victory. And if five per cent of them do something then maybe something will happen.'

Moore also believes that the subject is something we too should take to heart as a sobering cautionary tale.

'I'm much more hopeful about this film in terms of a British audience, because there's hope for you. I don't know if there's hope for us. I honestly don't. I wish I could be more optimistic. You've only started to go down our road. This film should be a warning to the British public. If you want to end up like this, keep doing what you're doing.

'Keep taking away your social services, start putting women on a bus so they can go on an 80-mile round trip to work off their welfare. Make it harder for them, make their lives more miserable than they already are. More acts of statesponsored terrorism against your poor.

'If you keep doing that you will have, as you've started to have, a more violent society, more crime, more fear. You don't feel as safe as you felt ten or 20 years ago. That's the result of Thatcher and Major, and the kinder, gentler version, Blair.

'Why have you done this to yourselves? That's what I can't figure out. You have this British ethic that you all believed you were in the same boat, that if one of you is hurting you're all hurting, if one of us needs a doctor that person should get a doctor. Imagine that? You think that if someone gets sick they should get help.

'To an American this is a weird concept. You believe that if somebody loses their job they should get some assistance. That there should be help, a safety net. That's been your ethic, and it gave you a better society.

'You had a value on education. You didn't think it would be funny if the leader of the country wanted to bomb another country but he couldn't find it on a map. You valued that, you had a different way of life. And then you started snipping away at your social security, you started to beat up on your poor, you started to do things like the Americans did it.

'Why would you do that? Why would you debase the structure, the soul of your society? You already had it good. Why would you over the last 20 years go down this road to where you look more and more like us? I'm hoping British audiences will leave the theatre thinking 'we're kind of starting to look like that aren't we? We don't want to go down that road'.'

And Moore's fellow Americans? Is it really the abyss?

'When I watch this movie I sit there and I think that as Americans were better than this. You know this about us, that as individuals we are a good people. You do like us mostly when you encounter us. There's something charming and fascinating about our simpleness and our ability just to put it out there on our sleeve, that this is who we are. And were good as people, as individuals.

'So why then, when we collectivise ourselves as a society, do we do so much harm and damage to the world? There's the disconnect. I want the goodness of us as individuals connected to us as a whole so that we don't bring so much harm to the larger world.'

Bowling For Columbine opens Today; Stupid White Men is available in Penguin paperback
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 15, 2002
Previous Article:Culture: Alarming pot-shot at trigger-happy nation; BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE CERT 15 119MINS.
Next Article:Culture: Ugly despair in concrete hell; Mike Davies reviews this week's new cinema releases DOG DAYS CERT 18 132 MINS SUBTITLED.

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