I’ve read some intriguing reviews of this award-winning documentary, so when my daughter invited me to join her at the Garneau theatre on Sunday night, I decided to put aside my books and take a night off to attend the movies. I’m so glad I did! Bowling for Columbine is one of the most thoughtful and provocative movies I’ve ever seen.
In Bowling for Columbine, director Michael Moore takes a look at the “right to own a gun” mentality in the U.S.; the 2nd Amendment Constitutional right that allows every American to keep a loaded gun in their homes to protect themselves and their families. He does this in the context of the incomprehensible events at Columbine on April 20, 1999, when two heavily armed teenagers entered a high school and embarked on a killing spree, taking the lives of 12 students and one teacher, and injuring dozens of others, before taking their own lives.
The odd title comes from the fact that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had apparently gone bowling in the morning, participating in a gym class that they enjoyed. After bowling class, they donned military gear, loaded their guns, and headed out to shoot up their school.
Moore uses a highly effective mix of humour, satire, and drama to make his point. As a long-time card carrying member of the NRA, Moore is in a good position to ask some difficult questions regarding the culture of violence in the U.S., and he does this in a deadpan style that leaves the audience alternating between laughter, incredulity, and horrified silence.
The documentary begins with a bemused Moore receiving a rifle as a bonus gift upon opening up a bank account in Michigan. From there Moore takes us on a journey, with interviews ranging from the Michigan militia to American Bandstand’s Dick Clark; from teenagers who make homemade napalm to the producer of COPS; from two students injured at Columbine to K-Mart executives; from Charles Manson to Charlton Heston. He enlists the help of South Park’s Matt Stone; who was raised in Littleton, Colorado; in some highly effective animated sequences. At every step of the way Moore presents ironic contrasts, asking the question, “what is it about America, guns and violence?”
The interview with Marilyn Manson gives some thoughtful perspective. Manson was immediately demonized as a causal factor in the Columbine killings, since both boys were Manson fans. Yet on the day of the murders, Bill Clinton had proudly announced that the U.S. had made their largest military strike ever against Kosovo. But no one blamed Clinton’s announcement as a motivator for Klebold and Harris – nor did they blame bowling!
The documentary gave us graphic images of various U.S. atrocities against other countries, while taking a painful look at the media-fueled atmosphere of fear Americans live in, and the fanatical loaded-gun culture Moore claims this leads to. There are some deeply touching moments that had the audience in absolute silence, save the sound of muffled sobbing…horrible media-covered murders of Vietnamese and Chilean citizens…the graphic school video of students hiding under their desks at Columbine…tapes of frantic phone calls from parents.
The heart wrenching 911 call made by a teacher in Flint, Michigan after a six year old boy brought a gun to school, killing six year old Kayla Rolland; set the scene for Moore to take a closer look at the roots of that particular tragedy. The tragic twist to that story is something that in itself leaves viewers with plenty to think about. Tamarla Owens, the single mother of the unfortunate 6-year-old murderer, was part of a Work for Welfare program (ironically administered by Lockheed Martin, major weapons manufacturer). She was forced to leave her children early in the morning, taking a bus for 80 miles to two jobs to pay off her welfare – one of them at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand restaurant (who receives a tax incentive for hiring Work for Welfare clients). After being evicted from her home, in desperation Tamarla asked her brother to take her children in, and it was there her 6 year old son found the gun that he took to class. She did not see her son take the gun to class because she was already on the bus to work. Images of her weeping face were interspersed with George Bush demanding that Americans prioritize greater funding for the military to fight the unknown “evildoer”.
Moore makes comparisons with Canada, where 7 million guns are registered to 10 million homes, yet we have a murder rate one twelfth that of the U.S. (11,217 at the time of the documentary filming). It is here that he takes some artistic excesses. Moore tries to portray Canada as a place where ghettos are nonexistent, and Toronto residents don’t even lock their doors. We know this is stretching the truth, but Moore does ask a valid question. Why do Canadians not share the U.S. culture of violence in spite of having plenty of access to violent video games, Marilyn Manson, and firearms?
Probably the most well-publicized part of the documentary is when Moore knocks on NRA President Charlton Heston’s door, and is granted an interview the following morning, based on shared NRA membership. Moore challenges Heston on the insensitivity of the decision to hold NRA meetings in both Littleton and Flint within weeks of the killings. Heston avoids the questions and walks off. Yet he remains dignified and is respectful in presenting his point of view, regardless of how flawed or erroneous that point of view may be.
The ironies are overwhelming in this documentary, and Moore draws provocative links ranging from the NRA and the KKK; to gun makers and Work for Welfare programs. The whole culture of fear that embraces U.S. citizens is questioned…and no answers are found. In the words of the Michigan militia, “it is an American responsibility to be armed – if you are not armed you are not responsible.” Moore makes us think. He asks questions with no answers, questions that need asking, timely questions that need a response. You may think you’ve seen documentaries before, but Bowling for Columbine is not like anything you’ve seen before. Don’t miss it.
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students’ Union.