LIFE UNDER MIKE
"Essentially, we just wanted to allow the people affected most directly by Mike Harris' policies to have as much of a say as politicians are routinely given," says filmmaker James E. Motluk about his film, Life Under Mike. "I mean, the general assumption seems to be that when you talk to people on welfare, or homeless people, or people involved in labour actions, you have to take what they say with a grain of salt, because they have an agenda -- like government doesn't have an agenda, or its own interests to protect."
Motluk's gritty digital video documentary -- shot in 18 months but edited over a period of roughly two years -- makes its world premiere tonight at the Bloor Cinema. It traces the not-so-slow dissolution of the low-income Ontarian's basic standard of living under Mike Harris -- empty food banks, broken strikes and a terrifying montage of street-level survival tactics that begins with sales of Outreach and soup from the back of a truck, then sinks inexorably through cardboard-box "houses" and garbage-bag tents to the autopsy room at the local morgue.
"Harris stands up in public and says, 'Well, we got 40,000 people off the welfare rolls -- the Common Sense Revolution works,' and everybody cheers. But nobody asks the obvious question, which is, OK, so where exactly did all these people go? Did they get jobs? Are they living good lives? Or is there possibly any correlation between the 40,000 people no longer on the welfare rolls and that huge influx of homeless people I'm tripping over every day on the street outside my building?"
If real activism always stems directly from the word action, then Motluk, in his own quiet way, has become a one-man study in what makes grassroots political awareness grow. The last time I interviewed him, he was promoting his first feature, Nasty Burgers, an ultra-indie comedy about fast-food corporate politics set in Motluk's home town of Brockville, shot on such a low budget that he had to sync his audio track from a recording Walkman. Now he's reinvented himself, with equal skill and bravado, as a guerrilla op-ed investigator and commentator in the Michael Moore mode. It's a fitting comparison, seeing how Motluk eventually managed to get Moore himself to foot the bill for his first post-production edit.
"I was at the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival, trying to get people interested in funding my final cut," Motluk explains. "I'd already gotten shoot money from several trade unions -- and no, they didn't ask for editorial control, thank you -- but I knew Michael Moore was there with his film The Big One, and I thought he might be interested. So I found him and I started pitching him -- until he backed away from me, into an elevator. The next day, I was walking through the hotel lobby and I suddenly hear this shout: 'Hey, you!' I look around, and Michael Moore -- who's a pretty big guy -- wrestles me into the wall, gives me his phone number and tells me to name my price."
Motluk had similar good luck when it came to music. He wanted to score parts of Life Under Mike to Bruce Springsteen's song "The Ghost of Tom Joad," so he phoned Sony Music to inquire about securing rights, and was duly laughed at. But when he faxed Springsteen a letter explaining his intentions, he got word back within two weeks: Can't pay? Don't worry.
"I got another song from Bob Dylan, almost exactly the same way," Motluk says, visibly amazed. "I think I'm still kind of reeling."
After the editing was over, however, Motluk collided headfirst with the classically Canadian problem of distribution.
"I'd really wanted to get Life Under Mike on TV, since it's obviously financially difficult for me to reproduce and distribute it on tape myself, but that hasn't been going so well. Then the guys at the Bloor Cinema stepped in, because they're increasingly interested in arranging screenings of features shot on digital video, which is wonderful -- and once this is over, I hope to use the publicity to find a sponsor willing to pay for a video projection system, and send myself around with the film like some kind of travelling road show."
As Motluk points out, even if you're utterly ambivalent about Ontario's current government, the quality of a society's freedom is still proportionate to the freedom and equality of its information distribution systems. Two opinions are always better than one.
"I really did want to make sure that the Harris government got a chance to rebut my arguments," Motluk says, "but literally nobody would talk to us directly, on camera. They'd tell me when Harris events were going to take place, but the implicit understanding was that I could only tape, not ask questions. And after a while, when I'd gotten more than enough tape of Mike enjoying himself to meet my needs, I did start asking questions -- so they asked me to leave. We were removed from the Legislature twice, and the second time, they told me we wouldn't be welcome back.
"I came to Toronto in 1985, and if anyone had told me that at the turn of the next century I'd be stepping over people in the street, I'd have laughed at them. But that's how it happens: slowly, insidiously. You wake up one day and suddenly there's 68-hour work weeks and no health care, and you wonder: How the hell did this happen? Well, it happened. And it's still happening.
"And if we don't even talk about it, it's sure not going to stop anytime soon."