When I spoke to Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine, the directors of Citizen Black and Manufacturing Dissent (Conrad Black and Michael Moore, respectively) a Chicago court had just convicted Black of four out of 13 charges related to embezzlement of his media company, Hollinger. At the same time, Michael Moore's latest film, Sicko, had just opened. As usual, Moore was creating a furore in the United States, this time railing against the American healthcare system. Melnyk and Caine's films had tapped into the zeitgeist.
Has Michael Moore reacted to your film?
Debbie Melnyk: A reporter asked him about our film in New York and he said, "Oh, you mean Manufacturing Consent, the film about Noam Chomsky? No, the documentary about you. "Well a lot of people make films about me and I haven't heard anything about that. A couple of months after that another reporter asked him about the allegations that he had interviewed Roger Smith twice while making [Roger and Me]. Then he said, "Anyone who says that is a fucking liar. Yes, we do stand by our allegations, because we double-sourced it.
Rick Caine: Even the [Roger Smith] interview that took place at the Waldorf Astoria was backed up by Jim Musselman and Ralph Nader. So, at a certain point, who are you going to believe? Moore is the only one who's denying it happened.
Some have said that Moores career thrives when Republicans are in office. If the Democrats take over next year do you think Moore will have much of a filmmaking career?
Caine: I do. Ralph Nader has this right even when the Democrats are in office there's plenty of stuff to go after here, folks. The policies the two parties set forward are not that dissimilar.
Melnyk: I think he's actually peaked with Fahrenheit 9/11. That was his big success. I don't think you will have a film as big as Fahrenheit 9/11.
What did you think of Sicko ?
Melnyk: I didn't think it was as grandstanding as Fahrenheit 9/11, which we're all grateful for. He did the same old stuff with Canada that it's so great. I'm getting a little tired of that. Then, the little stunt at the end [in] Cuba [and him] with a megaphone saying we want free medical care from Guantánamo Bay. The part I really liked was when he talked to the HMO about taking bribes by not giving operations. That was fascinating to me, because I didn't know that. I thought it had its good points and bad points.
Caine: It's tricky for us to enjoy it now, because were always questioning him. We see how he's reporting on the Canadian healthcare system. So is the British healthcare system as good as Michael Moore shows? Is the French system that good? In the end we were like, "Wow, France is really that sweet. I want to move to France. That's looks so good, so inviting, so perfect. Yet look at the political backdrop. They unfortunately have elected [French president] Sarkozy for a reason because they don't like a high tax rate and stagnant economy, and the best and the brightest fleeing the country. It's a tricky thing, because we agree with Michael's political point that he made in Sicko. The fact of the matter is we are appreciative we have universal health care. It's a great idea, but it's been starved for cash by our current administration. It doesn't work quite exactly the way we do like it to, but we know what we like about it and don't like about to. That's the kind of nuance that it is not there in the film. We want a more sophisticated argument than what he's offering us. Look, Michael Moore's general take is the American public is stupid and you have to badger them over the head to make a point or understand something. Okay, I get that at face value, but then [there is] the risk of dumbing down your argument you run the risk that your argument contains little or no analysis. When Michael repeatedly says in Sicko that the American health system is inferior to the Canadian one, because Canadians live three years longer than Americans ignores so many other factors in the long equation like diet and lifestyle. For better or worse, some of the mainstream media has stopped covering these complicated things [leaving] filmmakers like Michael Moore, ourselves and many others to cover the terrain.
Your film was the most polarizing documentary at this year's Hot Docs Film Festival. Opinion was split 50/50. Those who didn't like your film felt you are unfair to Moore. One journalist I know was so upset that Moore was on a publicity tour for his film so he didn't have much time to sit down with you guys. Do you have any response to people like that?
Caine: First of all there is a slight misunderstanding. He was initially on his publicity tour for Fahrenheit 9/11, but our plan was to go well beyond that knowing that this would be a super busy phase of his life. We knew there would come a certain juncture where it would step down for him. So we hung in there and waited [until] he was well past that busy stage and the American election.
Melnyk: For 11 months.
Caine: We delayed the editing of the film because we had a certain deadline with the broadcaster which we blew by the way, it's the first time we've ever done that. Michael came to Toronto in 2006 to show some...
Melnyk: ...parts of Sicko at the Toronto International Film Festival. Look, you're in Toronto, now do you want to do something?
Caine: By the way our offer still stands. We'd still like to interview him today.
The other critique is youre giving ammunition to Moore's enemies on the American right. Any reaction to that?
Melnyk: We were worried about that. We were talking to Jim Musselman, the [political] activist in the film, and he said, "Debbie, don't be afraid to do this, because I actually don't think he is helping the left because he gets things wrong in his films and when he gets things wrong he gives ammunition to the right, because they take it apart and say this is wrong, this is wrong. How can you believe the bigger truth in this film when he consistently gets things wrong? He shouldn't be the leader of the left because he is taking us down. He believes the ends justify the means and Musselman doesn't believe. We discussed that for a long time and we don't want to give ammunition to the right.
Caine: I think it's valid. It's something that was front and centre in our minds. So we didn't want to release it in an election year. Michael Moore is impossible to ignore and relatively easy to dismiss because of all these side issues. The problem with making any cultural products, when you put it out there it can be co-opted by anyone for whatever purposes. Now I know Michael Moore did not make Fahrenheit 9/11 so that Hamas and Hezbollah could do fundraisers around it. That's what not to why he made that film. We did not make this critique of Michael Moore's documentary methods to give aid and ammunition to American right-wingers whose political agenda we're completely opposed to.
Melnyk: As a matter of fact we were asked by Fox News at South by Southwest festival [SXSW] to do an interview, and we finally agreed to do it only live. When we answered the questions about Michael Moore, they are trying to go, "Yes, he is. Then, Rick would say, "Don't be so disingenuous, Fox News, because you guys are just as bad. You're worse than Michael Moore and you're a news organization and you've been lying to the public for years and especially about the Iraq war. You're basically George Bush's mouthpiece. Of course then we got kicked off the air.
Caine: We opened the vein of the debate for us it cuts both ways, because the right took us on and the left took us on.
Moore and [Conrad] Black rest on opposing sides of the political spectrum but they share similar personalities in that they have big egos. How do you think a dinner conversation would go between them?
Melnyk: Actually I think Conrad Black likes to hear opposing viewpoints so I think it might not go so bad. Michael is getting used to talking to Republicans. I think it would be an interesting conversation, but theyd also try to top each other. The one thing that Moore would hate would be Black using the big language, fancy language. He would go, "What the hell does that mean? I didn't go to private school.
Caine: It would be a fascinating conversation, though I wonder if Black would find it intellectually challenging enough. I think politically challenging enough.
What was your reaction to the Black verdict?
Melnyk: I actually thought it was a fair verdict.
Caine: Of course, we don't know what the sentence is yet.
Melnyk: Conrad should take his penance like a man and go to prison. Caine: My take on it now is Conrad was a man who thought he could get away with it. He had gotten away with it his entire life. The simple example, which I think is emblematic of this entire proceeding, was the removal of the 13 boxes after the Canadian court had ordered him to not do that. He removed those boxes from his Toronto office, because he was convinced the video cameras weren't working. When he got booted out of that building that weekend the building had new video cameras. So when the jurors saw that in fact that actually is now the largest charge against him, obstruction of justice, which has a maximum of 20 years. Though I don't think he'll get 20 years for it.
So it's the power of video.
Caine: Let's put it this way. The case is very convoluted when you're following a paper trail, innuendos, witness one who says that, another refutes that, another witness proves that another witness is a lifelong liar. You know what I'm saying? But when you have photographic evidence it becomes more irrefutable. Somehow we are more willing to believe things we see with our own eyes.
What sentence do you predict he'll receive?
Melnyk: I actually think they're going to go lighter than they probably should, like six or seven years.
Caine: My feeling is they have to go heavier then what David Radler's plea bargain was, which was about two-and-a-half years. Even then Radler cut a deal to serve in that country club prison in British Columbia. There will be no extradition for Conrad, certainly not to Canada. It is possible he might serve his prison term in Britain.
Would they take him?
Melnyk: Well, they have those other lords who went to prison, like Jeffrey Archer...
Caine: ...and writing very good books...
Melnyk: [laughing] ...and making good money.
Have you been in touch with Black since completing the film?
Melnyk: Since completing the film, yes. We sent an email saying it's playing here and would you like to see it? It's playing at the Montréal World Film Festival. Then, he said, "Oh no, I'm not going to be in town, but set aside a ticket. I've got to friend who'd like to see it. There was a mix-up, and we didn't see his friend. Afterwards, he sent an email scolding me for our dressing up at the premiere as Barbara Amiel and Conrad Black, as [respectively] Marie Antoinette and Cardinal Richelieu. [In Blacks haughty tone] "If you're going to costume up please remember that Barbara was not Marie Antoinette she was a mere barmaid and I was certainly not Cardinal Richelieu. I was merely a Cardinal. I fear our communication will have to come to an end, because anything I say to you can be held against me.
Has he ever seen the film?
Caine: Yes, yes, yes.
Melnyk: I know that his lawyer had. His lawyer had been given a tape.
Caine: Quite early on.
Melnyk: And that he kind of laughed at it. So I assume he showed it to Conrad.
Caine: The primary lawyer and his associates watched it and sat around laughing at it. Apparently at the end they concluded [to Black that] you probably ought not to sue over this one. That was all we heard from backhand channels.
Were you afraid of getting sued? After all, he has sued a lot of journalists and biographers.
Melnyk: Oh, yeah. Just before us there was an article that came out in Toronto Life and brought a lawsuit over that and that was just a satirical piece. We thought, "Oh, my God. The errors and omissions people were worried. [However] our lawyer looked at it and said, "Look, you've got everything right here. You aren't defaming him at all. You're just using his own words, keeping it on the straight and narrow. You shouldn't have any reason to be sued. But that never stopped Black from suing before. Caine: Then, he sued Tom Bower over his book, Dancing In the Dark On the Edge after we made our documentary. I guess we're the anomaly that didn't get sued in between.
If you could interview Black right now, what would you ask him?
Melnyk: I would actually like to interview him inside prison to get his impression of prison life. Even if I asked him if he had any regrets, Conrad would say, "I am innocent. Sort of like the Richard Nixon thing "I am not a crook. I just don't think he would fess up until the bitter end. I don't think he will take responsibility for what happened.
I'm trying to picture him in orange fatigues
Caine: I think the biggest problem with people like Conrad Black and Martha Stewart is the kind of lifestyle they're accustomed to in the free world. There is going to be such a huge drop-off to the kind of lifestyle he's living now to what he's going to get behind bars.
Melnyk: You basically have to do whatever the guards tell you to do and the thats that.
Caine: You can see the effect on Martha for six months. She lost a whole bunch of weight.
Melnyk: Maybe Conrad will look better when he gets out.
When you were making your film did your opinion of Black change? Did you become more sympathetic to him or see more facets to him that you didn't expect?
Melnyk: I actually saw more facets to him than I expected. What I had seen before were all these interviews on CBC, BBC and archive footage, and he was just really pompous and stern. I never imagined he would have a sense of humour or make fun of himself, like the scene with the book signing. People have many different sides to them. CBC reporter Brian Stewart said, "One of the things about Conrad Black ever since I knew him in school was that he was always interested in people's opinions, whether it would be the waitress in the restaurant or the gas station attendant. When we went through Europe [in the film] he would always say, "What do you think of Charles de Gaulle, or this or that? He was always interested in various opinions from all walks of life, which kind of surprised me as well.
What do you think his encyclopaedia entry will be?
Melnyk: That he stole from his company and ended up in jail. Caine: I think it's an incomplete life story. So let's see what happens. If he does ten or 15 years, he'll come out of prison a changed man. Melnyk: He'll be remembered for the scandal. Yeah, he started The National Post. Love it or hate it at least it was another paper in Canada, giving people jobs.