Impact Of Fahrenheit 9/11
By John Berger
31 August, 2004
9/11 is astounding. Not so much as a film - although it is cunning and
moving - but as an event. Most commentators try to dismiss the event
and disparage the film. We will see why later.
The artists on the
Cannes film festival jury apparently voted unanimously to award Michael
Moore's film the Palme d'Or. Since then it has touched many millions
across the world. In the US, its box-office
takings for the first six weeks amounted to more than $100m, which is,
astoundingly, about half of what Harry Potter made during a comparable
period. Only the so-called opinion-makers in the media appear to have
been put out by it.
The film, considered
as a political act, may be a historical landmark. Yet to have a sense
of this, a certain perspective for the future is required. Living only
close-up to the latest news, as most opinion-makers do, reduces one's
perspectives. The film is trying to make a small contribution towards
the changing of world history. It is a work inspired by hope.
What makes it an
event is the fact that it is an effective and independent intervention
into immediate world politics. Today it is rare for an artist to succeed
in making such an intervention, and in interrupting the prepared, prevaricating
statements of politicians. Its immediate aim is to make it less likely
that President Bush will be re-elected next November.
To denigrate this
as propaganda is either naive or perverse, forgetting (deliberately?)
what the last century taught us. Propaganda requires a permanent network
of communication so that it can systematically stifle reflection with
emotive or utopian slogans. Its pace is usually fast. Propaganda invariably
serves the long-term interests of some elite.
This single maverick
movie is often reflectively slow and is not afraid of silence. It appeals
to people to think for themselves and make connections. And it identifies
with, and pleads for, those who are
normally unlistened to. Making a strong case is not the same thing as
saturating with propaganda. Fox TV does the latter; Michael Moore the
Ever since the Greek
tragedies, artists have, from time to time, asked themselves how they
might influence ongoing political events. It's a tricky question because
two very different types of power are involved. Many theories of aesthetics
and ethics revolve round this question. For those living under political
tyrannies, art has frequently been a form of hidden resistance, and
tyrants habitually look for ways to control art. All this, however,
is in general terms and over a large terrain. Fahrenheit 9/11 is something
different. It has succeeded in intervening in a political programme
on the programme's own ground.
For this to happen
a convergence of factors were needed. The Cannes award and the misjudged
attempt to prevent the film being distributed played a significant part
in creating the event.
To point this out
in no way implies that the film as such doesn't deserve the attention
it is receiving. It's simply to remind ourselves that within the realm
of the mass media, a breakthrough (a smashing down
of the daily wall of lies and half-truths) is bound to be rare. And
it is this rarity which has made the film exemplary. It is setting an
example to millions - as if they'd been waiting for it.
The film proposes
that the White House and Pentagon were taken over in the first year
of the millennium by a gang of thugs so that US power should henceforth
serve the global interests of the corporations: a stark scenario which
is closer to the truth than most nuanced editorials. Yet more important
than the scenario is the way the movie speaks out. It demonstrates that
- despite all the manipulative power of communications experts, lying
presidential speeches and vapid press
conferences - a single independent voice, pointing out certain home
truths which countless Americans are already discovering for themselves,
can break through the conspiracy of silence, the atmosphere of fear
and the solitude of feeling politically impotent.
It's a movie that
speaks of obstinate faraway desires in a period of disillusion. A movie
that tells jokes while the band plays the apocalypse. A movie in which
millions of Americans recognise themselves
and the precise ways in which they are being cheated. A movie about
surprises, mostly bad but some good, being discussed together. Fahrenheit
9/11 reminds the spectator that when courage is shared one can fight
against the odds.
In more than a thousand
cinemas across the country, Michael Moore becomes with this film a people's
tribune. And what do we see? Bush is visibly a political cretin, as
ignorant of the world as he is
indifferent to it; while the tribune, informed by popular experience,
acquires political credibility, not as a politician himself, but as
the voice of the anger of a multitude and its will to resist.
There is something
else which is astounding. The aim of Fahrenheit 9/11 is to stop Bush
fixing the next election as he fixed the last. Its focus is on the totally
unjustified war in Iraq. Yet its conclusion is larger than either of
these issues. It declares that a political economy which creates colossally
increasing wealth surrounded by disastrously increasing poverty, needs
- in order to survive - a continual war with some invented foreign enemy
to maintain its own internal order and security. It requires ceaseless
Thus, 15 years after
the fall of communism, a decade after the declared end of history, one
of the main theses of Marx's interpretation of history again becomes
a debating point and a possible explanation of the catastrophes being
It is always the
poor who make the most sacrifices, Fahrenheit 9/11 announces quietly
during its last minutes. For how much longer?
There is no future
for any civilisation anywhere in the world today which ignores this
question. And this is why the film was made and became what it became.
It's a film that deeply wants America to survive.
is an acclaimed author and a winner of the Booker Prize