Fatal attraction

One of the big films at Cannes is a documentary by Michael Moore about the Columbine massacre. He tells Geoffrey MacNab why the USA loves guns
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The Independent Culture

It's late afternoon on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes and Michael Moore is behind schedule. By the time he hoves into view, he is an hour late. An imposingly large figure in his trademark baseball cap and spectacles, he manoeuvres himself behind a table and orders lunch (soup, a club sandwich and a coke with no ice). He puts on his shades and then takes them off again when the photographer says he can't see Moore's eyes. "I'll put my real glasses on so you don't have to deal with this Hollywood stuff. You want to see the soul, right?" A hotel manager, who clearly thinks Moore is an American tourist, comes over to tell the photographer that it's forbidden to take pictures without permission.

"If you're in a room, you can spot the American not just because of his accent but because of HOW LOUD HIS VOICE IS," Moore suddenly shouts as the manager retreats, but the clowning is half-hearted. He is jet-lagged. Besides, he is in town to talk guns and that – it soon becomes apparent – is not a subject to joke about. Today his new documentary Bowling For Columbine receives its world premiere in competition at the festival. (This is an unlikely achievement in itself. Officially, documentaries aren't allowed, but the selection committee has made an exception for him. "I didn't submit it," he says. "They called me and said they were so moved by this film and they wanted it to appear very early on in the festival to maybe set a tone.")

Moore, who first made his mark with Roger & Me (1989), is a familiar face on British TV from shows such asThe Awful Truth and TV Nation. He is now a national celebrity in the US. His recent book, Stupid White Men... and other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, is at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. "It's clearly being bought by a lot of stupid white men," he chuckles. "Maybe we're a self-hating lot."

But it's guns he wants to talk about. Moore is obsessed by them. He is the reluctant owner of a rifle. "I went to open up this bank account in Michigan and they gave me one." His wife wants him to get rid of it, but it's still languishing in the closet. "It's not loaded. There's no ammunition anywhere near it." He doesn't like having it around, but he can't bring himself to dispose of it. That, he would argue, is the US problem in a nutshell. Too many of his fellow citizens feel exactly the same way.

Growing up in Michigan, Moore was surrounded by guns. In northern Michigan, on the opening day of deer season, over a million enthusiastic sharpshooters take to the woods. Moore was a crack shot himself. "But I tended to believe as I got older that guns aren't a good thing to have around," Moore frowns.

"Are we a nation of gun nuts or are we just nuts?" is the central question that Bowling For Columbine asks. The question comes from one of the parents of the victims of the Columbine massacre who asks: "Are we Americans homicidal by nature?" Moore's own conclusions are bleak. "The early genesis of fear in America came from having a slave population... that grew from 700,000 to four million," he states. The Colt 6-shooter, invented in 1836, was cheap and portable, and was just what the white folk needed to "contain slavery" for the final 25 years. "It's something we're raised with in the United States – to believe in not only the gun, but using violence to get what we want and enforce a class system, so the have-nots stay there."

Moore was in his office when the massacre at the Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, took place in 1999. He had just filmed a piece for Channel 4 entitled (prophetically) Teen Sniper School. "We were satirising how parents teach their kids to shoot guns," he recalls. He was dismayed, but not surprised. There had already been three or four school shootings that year. "It seemed like it was happening every month, but this was just the worst of them."

Using the Freedom of Information act, he was able to secure recorded tapes from the security cameras in the cafeteria from the morning of the massacre. He got hold of a CD-Rom of the 911 calls made by those stuck inside the school. The authorities tried to encode messages that they didn't want the public to hear, but Moore hacked into the CD-Rom and retrieved everything. Some of the calls from the victims are featured in the film. "But a lot of the calls are from the media, calling the emergency lines to see if they can get somebody on the air."

In the course of his research, Moore visited Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association. "Why he agreed to talk to me I'll never know," Moore smirks. "Once I was inside his house and the interview began, I felt like Toto the dog pulling back the curtain to reveal that the Wizard Of Oz was just a frightened old man who couldn't talk in normal sentences."

Heston simply repeated the party line of the NRA in robotic fashion. "I wasn't there to talk politics with him. I was there to talk about him personally, as a human being. And he didn't know how to respond to that."

Asked why he kept a loaded gun in the house, Heston admitted he'd never been a victim of crime or been threatened. "Why do you have it loaded if you're not afraid of anything?" Moore asked. "Because the Second Amendment gives me the right to have it." The conversation went around in circles.

More eloquent voices than Heston's have supported the right to own guns. Take the arguments of Hunter S Thompson, who seemingly sees the right to own a gun as part of what defines being American. Moore says many of his friends "believe strongly in the right to own guns – and they're liberals." But he dismisses their arguments. At bottom, he believes, those who own guns do so because they're afraid.

In the film, Moore visits Canada. There are 10 million homes there, and seven million guns. "And yet there are little more than 100 murders in a year in a nation of 30 million people." The Canadians watch the same violent movies, play the same video games and listen to the same rock'n'roll music. So why don't they shoot each other? Moore can't provide an answer, "but it dispels the liberal argument that, if only we got rid of the guns, we'd have a better society."

So what's the solution in the US? In the short term, Moore advocates a blanket ban. "We're not straight up here," he points at his head. "Until we are, it's not good to have a lot of guns around." In the long run, Americans need to create a different type of society – and stop electing right-wing governments. "I don't know if the film is too late for us," he sighs, "but maybe it can be a warning for other countries."

Not that Moore is entirely depressed about the US. After 11 September, he embarked on a long road trip, taking in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Missouri, staying in motels, eating in diners and listening to local talk radio. "These are the States that George Bush, Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft are from. We expected to hear bloodthirsty calls for revenge, but instead we heard a lot of people reflecting on what had happened and why... I thought, maybe there's some hope here, after all."