Last October, the students at Utah Valley State College — in the heart of what is possibly the most religious, conservative and staunchly Republican area on the face of the Earth — invited left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore to speak at their school just two weeks before the 2004 election. The resulting furor tore apart the city of Orem (“Family City U.S.A.”), as advocates of free speech clashed with students and community members who were willing to go to almost any lengths to keep Moore out. The controversy received scant attention from the press on a national level, as it occurred at a time when the cameras were busy following Bush and Kerry on their campaign trails. Thankfully, independent filmmaker Steven Greenstreet had the good sense to pick up a camera and document an incident that says much more about the state of politics in this nation than any of the presidential debates.
The result of his efforts, “This Divided State,” was shown in a special screening at Yale on monday. In the film, he explores all sides of the debate that rocked the usually placid town. Greenstreet found a veritable goldmine of eccentric characters and preposterous events, and his skill as a filmmaker absolutely does the material justice.
we see Kay Anderson, a community activist with a manic glint in his eyes, who is convinced that Moore’s presence on campus will bring about the complete moral corruption of the town’s youth. He is willing to do anything, including bribe the school with a $25,000 check, to keep Moore away from Orem. “He hates who we are, he hates our values and he would like to destroy us!” he screams at the camera. Working with Anderson is Sean Vreeland, a college student who spends hours collecting signatures for an anti-Moore petition, and doesn’t hesitate to bend the facts to gain names. At the center of the storm are Jim Bassi and Joe Vogel, the president and vice president of the student body. Even though the two are conservative, Republican, and returned Mormon missionaries, they are willing to face criticism, lawsuits and even death threats to stand behind their decision to book Moore — simply because they believe the issue is one of free speech.
These figures face each other down against a background of Orem’s most colorful characters: a Michael Moore look-alike, flag-draped Nader supporters, cigar-smoking, foul-mouthed old men, and townsfolk dressed as Imperial Stormtroopers. In the weeks leading up to Moore’s appearance, the town has the feel of both a carnival and a small southern town during the civil rights era.
Greenstreet is tireless in his efforts to capture every side of the debate that engulfs the town, and his objectivity is perhaps the most impressive aspect of “State.” He interviews students, random citizens and local business owners; he goes to rallies and debates, dutifully capturing the arguments of each side. The filmmaker, an avowed liberal, absents himself from the documentary almost entirely, a marked departure from Moore’s trademark style. There is no narration; he lets the people of Orem speak for themselves — and wisely does the same for Sean Hannity, the maliciously thoughtless Fox News pundit who visits UVSC.
When Greenstreet does point out right-wing hypocrisy, he does so through a canny sense for juxtaposition. A shot of protestors demanding that Moore’s invitation to speak be revoked is followed closely by an image of a sign at the town’s limits that reads “Visitors Welcome!” Pachelbel’s “Canon” plays over shots of leafy, idyllic campus streets one moment, and the next shot shows lines of crazed protestors.
Best of all, the documentary doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions that arise after Moore finally arrives, delivering a speech that smacks disappointingly of demagoguery. What was all the protest and fighting for? Was Moore’s visit worth the loss of Vogel’s position as vice president and his scholarship?
The answer is there, subtle and eloquent. One can see it in a scene midway through the film, when a young exchange student from Togo speaks up during a rally. His quiet, heavily-accented voice is barely audible, but the power of his words is enough to bring the screaming protestors to silence. “I come from a country where we do not have freedom of speech,” he states calmly. “You do not know the value of it.”
But perhaps the young man is wrong. Many predominantly Republican students in the most conservative state in the union cared enough to fight for the right of a man few of them even liked to come speak on their campus. “This Divided State” is a testimony to one instance where the American youth proved themselves not to be apathetic; perhaps it is more important than anything Michael Moore has made to date.