According to director Michael Moore, the film Bowling for Columbine paints a portrait of the United States, “a nation that seems hell-bent on killing first and asking questions later” at the beginning of the 21st century. Appealing to the likes of us, we thought, and this proved to be no false expectation. Apart from a film that grabs the spectator by the scruff of the neck, at times being tragic by the bare facts alone, Bowling for Columbine is above all a very humorous and enjoyable documentary about the American weapons industry, but also about the latter’s link with US foreign policy.
Satire sometimes cannot compete with reality. Bowling for Columbine starts with a sceptical Moore opening an account at a Michigan bank that gives each of its new customers a free rifle. To his own astonishment, the very sympathetic Moore promptly walks out with his peculiar welcome gift. He also joins the Michigan Militia for a day - folks who believe that "if you are not armed, you're in dereliction of duty”. He also elicits from Charleton Heston, head of the National Rifle Association, the remark that ethnic desegregation is the main cause of violence in the US! Moore mentions in passing that the murders in Columbine occurred on the same day as America's most intensive bombing of Kosovo. The film also points to the numerous foreign US-interventions and to the American financing and inducing of Islamic fundamentalism, including figures such as Osama bin Laden
Yet some critical remarks should be made. Moore is unable to demonstrate the connection between the aggrandisement of guns in the US and the individualist approach to social, moral and political questions. Nowadays “the land of the free” is only too often a veiled description of a hyper-individualistic capitalist society in which each of the different competing ‘atoms’ is supposed to seek their unreachable American Dream. Weapons only strengthen the tendency to look for individual solutions to problems that in reality strike the population as a whole. Nor is it a coincidence that in the country with the largest gun ownership, it is very easy to close factories, sack workers and cut social programs (as far as the latter exist, of course). Despite quite a few remarkable passages, the director is not entirely capable of analysing these more complicated historical and social issues in a satisfying way. The simply hilarious cartoon - entirely in South Park fashion - representing the history of the United States loses a great deal of its value through the absurd claim that Americans possess guns because of their historical fear of blacks!
One of the better parts of the documentary is the passage where Moore investigates the concrete circumstances in which a six-year-old boy shot a little girl in an elementary school near Flint, Michigan. Moore shows skilfully how the mother of the boy was cut off from welfare, how she was compelled to work in state-run programs and how she consequently wasted away.
"No wonder there is so much violence in the poor community,” Moore says in an interview, “because there are so many acts of state-sponsored violence against the poor. In the movie, you see the single mother who is taken away from her kids in a welfare-to-work program, put on an 80-mile roundtrip bus every day, where she doesn't get to see her kids because she has to work off her welfare. And then, lo and behold, her six-year-old, staying at the uncle's (house), finds a gun, takes the gun to school - and she doesn't see him because she's already on the bus to pay off her welfare."
Moore correctly wonders why this story is never being told. "Why aren't we talking about the violence of that act? To me, that's a violent act against that woman by the state. These are wage slaves. Those buses are modern-day slave ships that take them down to Auburn Hills, where the rich (people) live, to serve them all day and ship them back." (source: San Francisco Bee, October 25, 2002)
For all his jokes and witticism to make his point - nothing wrong with that - Moore is at his best in his role as ‘reality instructor’. The raw scenes of desolate and depraved neighbourhoods in Flint, a city that once had an important automobile industry but which became a ghost city since the flight of capital and the subsequent de-industrialisation, are undoubtedly extraordinarily poignant. In this cesspool of poverty and social inequality are to be found the real, deeper roots of senseless violence. Add to that a wretched press blowing up all kinds of petty crimes while generally suppressing the real criminality (corporate fraud and all sorts of white-collar crime committed by respectable ladies and gentlemen in suits), and it gets a lot easier to understand why a hot-headed nation takes up arms so readily.