Note: This was written pre-Brexit. The message of this film is now even more relevant than before!
With the 'Brexit' referendum looming, Trump towering over the U.S. presidential election, countries crashing apart akin to the disintegration of tectonic plates, and extremism on both sides of the spectrum standing strong, one thing's for certain: we're living in a time of fear.
Within this icy political climate comes Michael Moore's post-hiatus documentary, the optimistic 'Where To Invade Next'. It's a slightly tongue-in-cheek look at the freedoms and liberties afforded to Europeans, that are alien to the Yanks. If you've ever wondered what a film about the U.S.A without any clips actually taking place in America would like, this is it.
In order to 'fix' his homeland, Moore decides he will 'invade' countries on the other side of the Atlantic, taking from them their liberal ideals to create a kind of utopia, far from the police brutality and repression that the films opens with clips of. Ferguson, Sandra Bland, mass incarceration, Walmart capitalism. We see all the pitfalls of 'the Land of the Free', as action movie music reverberates out. The emphasis here, and the thing Moore spends the entirety of the film documenting is the "we" culture of Europe, rather than the "me" culture of the United States.
On his Eurotrip, Moore visits lots of other, different places in search of rules to live by. In Italy, he chats to a hilariously facially expressive couple about workers rights, as they explain that they receive 8 weeks paid vacation. With their 2 hour lunch breaks and 5 months of maternity leave, Moore's surface-scraping representation of Italy holds up to its stereotypes -- we see a land of jolly passion, of food, and sex.
In France, he heads to rural Normandy and finds a school cafeteria complete with a fromage refrigerator. Once a month the chef sits down with a dietician and the mayor's office to go over the daily menu. Lunch is looked at like a class, instead of the Sloppy Joes and Coca Cola of American canteens. The sight of Moore sitting in a child's chair in his trademark oversized t-shirt and trucker hat is extremely comical. Primary school children receive sex education that explores mutual pleasure: "we give, we receive," explains a jovial French teacher. It's a world away from the abstinence curriculum of North America, where rape culture and malevolent masculinity has perforated college campuses to a terrifying degree.
Moore discovers that the secret to Finland's top performing schools is the absence of homework and standardised tests. All the schools are equal, as it's illegal to charge tuition. In Slovenia, college is inclusively free -- anyone from anywhere in the world can attend without landing themselves in a sinkhole of debt. In Germany, we meet a "thriving middle class," who if they're stressed can be prescribed by their doctors a 3 week stay at a spa. In Portugal, drugs have been decriminalised. In Norway, the highest possible sentencing is 21 years, and their prison system relies predominantly on rehabilition methods, and trust. There are no "21st century slaves," mainly African-Americans who have lost their rights through incarceration and who, while caged, are forced to work for pennies. Culture may have progressed since the plantations, but the iron shackles remain in another form.
He visits other countries, including Tunisia and Iceland, where he looks into women's rights movements. In the latter's fiscal crisis, the only bank in the country that didn't go under was one run by women. Could females be the gatekeepers to the "we" community?
A running theme of the film is the power of human dignity. The Italians who are able to spend their time out-of-work nourishing their souls through travel. The Norwegian prisoners who, rewarded for good behaviour, are able to ride bikes through the Sound-of-Music-esque landscape. The Tunisian women afforded abortions without the trauma of shaming.
Despite the dark political underbelly that hangs like the off screen elephant in the room, there are many comedic moments that tie in with the optimism that Moore evokes. This includes the ever-casually dressed Moore meeting the President of Slovenia, a Hollywood-esque, white-toothed man who happily smiles at the camera. Also, the Norwegian prison orientation video, which sees guards singing 'We are the World' and playing instruments, as they dance around. At times, the Europeans in the film seem far too much like caricatures for my liking -- smiling, jolly liberals. This does not seem malicious, however, and it does fit in with the fact that this film has been created for American audiences.
Is Europe really the rose-tinted paradise that Moore infers, though? The answer is a resounded no, especially in the wake of last week's cold-blooded killing of West Yorkshire M.P. Jo Cox in her own constituency. and the recent footage of British football fans hatefully antagonising refugee children, along with the growing migrant crisis. As I watch this documentary, we're on the brink of closing our borders. Isolationist Britannia is rising. England, interestingly, is one country whose shores Moore does not land on.
When asked in the Q&A with Owen Jones (which follows the film) about his failure to represent refugees and other issues we face, Moore explains that he's "here to pick the flowers and not the weeds." To include people through positivity, not to launch into a tirade about the fact we're all fucked. While the documentary could've done with being condensed slightly (it sometimes feels a little too freewheeling), it shines in its resounding faith in the fact that things can get better. Hope is what we need right now, not fear.
"We" is more essential now than ever before.