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Interview :: Media

“There is No Apolitical Moment” – An interview with Majority Rules director Michael Burns

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“There is No Apolitical Moment” – An interview with Majority Rules director Michael Burns

Aaron Johnson, Somerville, MA USA

Michael Burns’ films are challenging. Not challenging in the respect that they’re difficult to decipher, but in that they challenge the audience to take a stand and to face serious defects in our political system. They’re not optimistic films. There’s no room for optimism when one honestly assesses the evidence in world affairs today. To present any other picture would be deeply dishonest. But there’s a critical difference between optimism and hope. Burns’ films are hopeful in that they propose that if we frankly confront the extent of the problems we face (be they America’s unfortunate two-party dominance, the White House’s pre-emptive war policy, or the systematic dismantling of any recognizable notion of democracy) then we have a chance to correct them. Without this first critical step, the kernel of hope that’s buried inside our major collective crises won’t be accessible. Majority Rules is his latest documentary exercise in finding that hope. It’s a five-part series on how young people from six countries (the US, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Russia, and the Philippines) view various aspects of democracy. It’s a project that took three years to make and one that educators, activists, and parents will find uniquely useful. It was released in May 2007. We spoke via the telephone just after that.

- Michael, why did you make this series?

I made this series because I think that to truly be a global citizen today, we have to step back and start asking some serious questions about things like democracy. Let me put it this way- we all live in a world where the meaning of basic ideas has become elusive. In the world of political spin, media manipulation, and educational omission the fundamental meaning of terms we use everyday are less and less concrete. So for me one of the most important ideas in the twenty-first century is democracy, a very rich concept to say the least: a political system, a constitutional arrangement, a check on power. Ok great, but there's much more to be said about the issue, questions like, "How do you decide who is a democracy and who isn't?", "What are we to make of democracy in a context where there's vast and repeated contradictions to its traditions?" or "Are countries' ostensible missions to spread democracy through liberal intervention justifiable?" These are the nuances that require discussion and dissection. For better or for worse today's culture is about sound bites and simplification, and yet complex ideas and complex questions, in my opinion, given the political situation in the world today, I think demand thoughtful reflection. So I made this film to assist in thoughtful reflection and question-asking that we could use more of.

- How did you choose the countries where you shot Majority Rules?

Well, it was an impossible task really. On paper the main criterion was that we wanted to look at countries that had a unique relationship to democracy. Well that narrows it down to about 150! So we had to add a dose of pragmatism too. As an independent filmmaker, my projects are created through a combination of self-funding and incredibly generous donations of time and resources from friends. This time, we also were very fortunate that one university, University College in Dublin, Ireland, actively wanted to participate in this project. So with a grant from them we were able to make Dublin one of our first stops. I had contacts in Italy so while we were in Europe, we included that country, which has a fascinating relationship to democracy. The US and Canada were very close for us to get to, and had to be included. We happened to be in the Philippines to work on another project so we filmed there too. And Russia was just a personal one that I was determined to include so I just had to save up and make that trip. Much more to say about each country but the main thing is that we tried to find places that were both practical for us and intriguing with respect to democratic development in one way or another.

- Majority Rules isn’t a narrative documentary with a story taking the audience along. Was that deliberate?

Yes it was. Documentary film has many strands that make it up, strands that have developed and evolved and branched out from each other going all the way back to the 1880s with the birth of the art form. One strand is the non-narrative documentary, which I personally find very compelling. Although Majority Rules is not a “fly on the wall” style series, I’m very much in debt to the sensibilities of directors like Frederick Wiseman, American documentary filmmaker. He’s not afraid to use long shots, deliberate pacing, and vignettes of situations to communicate his message. His projects are more like elaborations on a theme, which is what I’m trying to do as well. Narrative documentaries are great, anyone who’s seen Grizzly Man or American Movie (two of my favorites) of course would agree, but the art form encompasses so much more than that one approach and I think it’s good to have diversity in documentary.

- What was the biggest surprise for you during this process?

The biggest surprise for me during the course of making Majority Rules was the reaction of the students in Russia, the students who participated in the discussion we filmed. The significance of what we were all doing, us as filmmakers and them as participants, took on added meaning in Moscow. Even though the students were in their late teens, they were very aware that discussions like this were (and still are) rare in Russia, in terms of no holds barred discussions on the ways democracy is becoming more robust or more thin in the country. Some of them were quite moved, even though they were too young to personally experience a more censored atmosphere. I think in a way they felt privileged to take part. And so for me in turn this became a very moving experience too.

- In your films you’re not afraid to confront the powerful. I know you’re in the UK now, so if you could have a conversation with Tony Blair, what would you tell him?

Well, writing to you from England, we’re making the transition now from Tony Blair’s leadership to the Gordon Brown era. And so we’re hearing a lot about questions of legacy. The main thing that Tony Blair needs to be reminded of is that each of us, I believe, is responsible for the predictable results of our actions. Simple idea that I think we can all agree on. As I write this, over 700,000 Iraqis are dead as a result of the US led invasion of the country carried out with crucial support from Tony Blair personally. All done in the name of democracy and liberal intervention. I think the situation is beyond hypocrisy, beyond grotesque- we don’t have a word in our language to adequately describe this. It’s deeply disturbing and profoundly distressing. I think Tony Blair, if I could talk with him, would be reminded, as he worries about his legacy, of how much damage has been done to rational understandings of the term democracy, how much blood has been spilled in Iraq, and how the result of his actions will plague the world for decades to come.

- One of the things that most impresses me about your work is that it seems very simply constructed. Elegant is a good word. It’s not a million dollar production but the impact is still there and the points you make are cogent and powerful. As an independent filmmaker who is doing a great job with the resources he has, can you give any advice to other indies like yourself looking to start out.

I still think of myself as starting out! But you’re right, I’ve done a few projects now and know a bit more about how things work than I used to. There are a few things that I think perhaps I can contribute in terms of advice that might be of value. I would say that my academic background in filmmaking has been a tremendous asset. I don’t know if it’s made my films any better, but having a handle on the styles, ideologies, and priorities that make up various aspects of filmmaking has made directing a more fulfilling and richer experience for me. I appreciate my work and the work of others more because of this background. So I would say that up and coming filmmakers should never shy away from learning the fascinating history of our art form. I’d also say that visual artists today should realize that we live in totally unprecedented times when it comes to documentary. I always tell my students that never before could one person conceivably shoot, edit, duplicate, and distribute a documentary all on their own (or with minimal assistance). It’s a totally incredible time to be a documentary filmmaker. Nearly every aspect of the business has been democratized and technology and affordability have thrown the doors wide open in terms of access. Either wide open or blown away the doors all together. I’d say take advantage of these times. Again, perhaps it goes back to knowing a bit of the history. The more you know about the barriers that used to exist for even incredibly creative and talented directors, the more you thank God for the times we live in today.

- What's your next step?

My next steps involve working as hard as I can so that as many people see this series as possible. If we can sell a few in the meantime, great, but it’s not a concern for me. If I were interested in making money, I would make different types of films. It’s not dollars at this point that need to be generated, but active and informed citizens. This is crucial. Our world is in trouble, and I think one day when you least expect it the question just kind of stares you in the face and you ask yourself, “What are some changes I can make in my life to improve things for this planet, for my country, for my community?” It starts with being informed and with developing tolerance for other views and viewpoints, and it involves tapping into the collective wisdom put forth by those who’ve come before us. With Majority Rules, I’m trying to make one small nudge in that direction, toward information and tolerance and toward asking this question, because I think all of us are capable of so much more than we think we are. And I think art can often be one of the most powerful devices for us to realize this.

For more on the series see: www.majorityrulesmovie.com.

- June 2007
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