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CHOCO
Dec 20th, 2002, 05:19 PM
Film forces Americans to consider why they kill each other
December 21 2002

Michael Moore's film on gun control, Bowling for Columbine, opens in Melbourne on Boxing Day - fresh from box-office records. Kim Zetter reports.


It's been out for more than two months, but the documentary Bowling for Columbine is still the most talked about film in America.

Michael Moore's scary and, at times, hilarious treatise on American gun violence is breaking box-office records for a documentary in the US. Many screenings, showing to sell-out arthouse audiences, have closed with applause and cheering. There's even talk of an Oscar.

The film has changed some American viewers' minds about gun control and is helping to relaunch a public debate. But it also paints a disturbing picture.

In it, Moore asks a country with 240 million guns, where schools use metal detectors to screen students for weapons: "Are we a nation of gun nuts - or are we just nuts?" He uses the 1999 Columbine shooting of 12 students and a teacher by two teenagers in Colorado as the starting point to examine whether the murder rate would decline with fewer guns on the street. But after examining statistics in other countries, Moore concludes that guns don't kill people; Americans do.

At the time of filming, the annual murder rate in the US exceeded 11,000, with 45 per cent of households possessing guns. But Canada has seven million registered weapons in 10 million homes, and its murder rate is a 12th of that.

While the film fails to mention that most of Canada's guns are hunting rifles, not assault weapons and handguns, Moore said in interviews that the details did not matter. Despite owning rifles and shotguns, Canadians are not killing each other.

In search of the reason for America's trigger mania, Moore discovers a culture of fear, fuelled by the government and media. Fear, he says, leads Americans to arm themselves, to the benefit of companies making guns and security products. Rocker Marilyn Manson, whose music is often targeted by conservative anti-violence groups, says smartly in the film, "It's a campaign of fear and consumption... keep every one afraid and they'll consume."

But while fear might explain why Americans buy guns, it's hardly ever the reason they use them. This, Moore explains, is because of violent US foreign policies that teach American children that killing is an acceptable response to conflict.

It's a message not likely to go over well with a home audience. And yet it has.

Before the film's release, Moore expected some cinemas would find it too controversial and not show it. There was precedence for this.

HarperCollins (a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp) refused to release his book Stupid White Men after September 11, because the company deemed it too critical of US President George Bush during a time of nation bonding.

Editors insisted that Moore rewrite the book but relented after public disclosure of the censorship prompted a letter-writing campaign. "This is America," one supporter wrote. "WE DO NOT BAN BOOKS!"

In the case of both book and film, HarperCollins and Moore underestimated their audience. The book reached the Amazon bestseller list. And the film is closing in on North America's previous top-grossing documentary, Madonna's Truth or Dare.

Two of the most memorable screenings for Moore occurred on the closing nights of festivals in Denver, Colorado and Sarajevo. At the Denver screening, victims of the Columbine shooting were present. The Sarajevo screening, outdoors in a city square, drew 3000 people.

But not everyone approves of the film. Some parents of Columbine victims accuse Moore of using the tragedy to push his liberal agenda.

"He's a leech," Brian Rohrbough, whose son was killed, said. "This is just a guy trying to capitalise on the tragedy of others."

But Tom Mauser, whose 13-year-old son Daniel was also killed, says it is important to see. "We have to face facts," he told The Age. "We have not gotten a handle in this country on how to deal with violence, despite everything good that we see in the US."

Like Moore, he doesn't see gun control as the long-term answer. But after his son died, he did help pass legislation in Colorado to close a loophole that permitted gun show sales without a background check.

The movie has prompted viewers to take action as well. Moore received a few reports of people trying to convince stores in their towns to stop selling bullets. The Columbine killers bought 17-cent bullets at a Kmart store.

In the film, Moore takes two Columbine victims, with bullets still lodged in their bodies, to Kmart's headquarters, essentially to return the merchandise. The company brushes him off, but he returns the next day with a gaggle of reporters. The swiftness with which the company agreed to stop selling ammunition for handguns and assault weapons left Moore stunned.

He's not used to corporations doing what he wants them to do. Moore intended the film to be a cautionary tale to other countries.

"If you, as a society, allow this sort of violence... you will end up like us," he told an audience at the Cannes Film Festival. It's a message he hopes they'll hear.