From: Michael Moore, Board President
To: Traverse City Film Festival Board of Directors
Re: The 2016 TCFF and Making Change

Dear Fellow Board Members of the Traverse City Film Festival:

What if we threw a festival — but we had to find only movies made by women and African Americans?

It would be a pretty small festival, right? Because last year, as many of you know, only TWO films of the top 100 released by Hollywood were by women. Just ONE was by an African American! This is not an accident. It is policy. And whether or not it is written down doesn’t matter because it is the deliberate and conscious actions that count — and year after year the majority gender and the descendants of slaves are systemically shut out by this industry which has decided that the stories of women and Black Americans shall simply not be told via the nation’s most popular art form.

Thanks to the historic, institutional and ingrained racism and sexism of the Hollywood film industry — and the white male privilege that permeates all of the studios today – we, the audience, do not get to see the stories of the country’s MAJORITY gender, or of the nearly 30% of America which isn’t white.

96% of all movies released by Hollywood in the past 10 years were directed by men.  

91% of all Motion Picture Academy members are white.

95% of the Writers Guild members are white.

These statistics are almost impossible to believe. You can’t even find numbers this shocking about any institution or business in the deepest, most redneck parts of the Bible Belt. And yet the movie industry is considered to be the most liberal of all American institutions! How is this still possible in the year 2015?

Last month, as millions of American kindergarteners entered school, a little-noticed but bombshell piece of history was made: For the first time ever in this country, the majority of these kindergartners were not white. This, my friends, is only one example of how rapidly our country has been changing. I’ve asked a number of fellow filmmakers to join with me in making a public statement about what should already be obvious: That it is not acceptable that there is an utter and embarrassing lack of films directed by African Americans, Hispanics, Asians — and women of all colors. In this year of Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite, in these final months of our first Black president and the possibility of our first woman president, a year in which so many millions of young people have engaged politically for the first time, I’d like us to bust through the old traditions and do something that will rock this rigid racist and sexist foundation and raise a ruckus that will hopefully share our industry to its core.

So what if next summer I, as the founder and President of the Traverse City Film Festival, were to only show the great films of 2016 that have been made by women and African Americans? Would we need all eleven of our theaters in order to fit them all in? Or, sadly, would the number of our theaters need to be reduced to just one or two? Last year, while we were complimenting ourselves that 24% of the films we picked in our first ten years were made by women, there was something hollow about this so-called accomplishment. And so I said, off-handedly, “maybe next year we should just throw down the gauntlet and say that we’re going to show films only by women, films made only by African Americans. This shit needs to be shaken up!”

It was one of those random, unplanned, radical moments in my head that what we needed was a shock to the system for things to ultimately change. Yes, sometimes someone has to upset the apple cart and start the revolt, even if the Molotov they’re throwing seems a bit crazy. Someone had to burn the first draft card, the first bra. Someone had to be the first gay couple to walk down Front Street in old conservative Traverse City holding hands and suffering the ugly stares and the possibility of assault. Yes, it one’s actions may seem offensive or turn off some people – but if the brave few women who first tried to vote at a polling station hadn’t done so, or if the first parents who signed the form saying their child was not going to be taking the standardized test hadn’t done so, or the first person in Traverse City who decided the shoreline wasn’t just for the rich hadn’t spoken up at a city commission meeting – each time these first people took their “obnoxious” actions pubic, they were ridiculed, belittled, ostracized. And then, eventually, things changed – and always for the better.

To be clear: As Deb and I set out on this journey to find great films by women and black men, we will not pick a movie because it has been made by a woman or an African American filmmaker. The movies we pick will be, as always, of the same exceptional quality people have come to expect from the high standards we’ve established over the years.

Now, considering how hardly any women or Blacks are given the green light by the studios to make movies in this country, it will seem that our choices of movies to show will be down to next to nothing. To some of you, it will sound like we’ve set ourselves up for a near-empty film festival.

My answer to this is, yes, that’s what may end up happening — and the 2016 Traverse City Film Festival may become an unintended victim of Hollywood’s racism and sexism. But aren’t we already the victims? We are being denied the stories that more than half the population is not being allowed to tell us. And every single one of us are the worse off for it, living in a censored, tightly-controlled world dominated by one race and one gender. Who wants to keep living in that world?

But here’s the good news: I believe that great films from those who have been “shut-out” do indeed exist! They are getting made – you just never hear of them because they get lousy (or no) distribution. They aren’t funded so they get made underground and guerilla-style. They are amazing works of art, riveting films, edge-of-your-seat thrillers, stunning dramas, brazen comedies. You just don’t know about them.

Now you will, thanks to this festival. All we have to do is just go find them.

I’m sure you’ve thought about how much more empathic and intelligent our fellow citizens would all be if women and people of color were given a budget and a camera! Given? Hell, it’s about time they just swiped it out of our hands.

Thank you in advance to those of you who support me in this decision. If you don’t, please share your feelings with me. I want a rebellion to take place. Right now. Right here. In Traverse City, MI. In the middle of nowhere. Hollywood has let us down for a hundred years. Denied us women’s stories. Denied African Americans access to one of our few indigenous American art forms. Denied our young girls (and boys) the role models — the female and Black male directors — who would inspire them to make movies. This is hurtful and harmful and wrong. And it ends now. Yes, I know, that’s easy for me to say. Well, someone has to say it — and do it — so it might as well be you and me. Years from now, I would like what we do here this summer to be remembered as the one of the places where the revolution was ignited – a revolution that forever altered the cinema and made it an art form for everyone. Let the ripples we start here in the unlikely Midwest, on this Grand Traverse Bay, end in a tsunami of change in the halls and studios where these decisions get made. Let this be our Port Huron Statement of Cinema.

– Michael Moore

In July of 2016:

Dear Board members:

As promised, for the past year, our executive director, Deb Lake, and I have been quietly putting the word out there in the film community that at this year’s Traverse City Film Festival we are no longer going to talk about “diversity” – we’re going to actually do it and live it. Even if it is to our own temporary financial detriment.

I am happy to announce that, without altering our one founding festival principle – that we will absolutely ONLY show great movies at our festival and we will never lower our quality or standards to do so – I am announcing that this year, with the sole intention of shaking up Hollywood in our own small but very pubic way, the Traverse City Film Festival will show, in our festival’s main section of new America cinema, only films by women. All fiction and all nonfiction movies are by women. Thirty-six female directors will be presenting their films at this year’s festival! We are also showing a number of films by African Americans. Our attempt at parity for African Americans proved more daunting and so we will make that our singular mission in the coming year. We are not going to stop.

Thanks for your support and enjoy this historic and wonderful film festival!

— Michael

P.S. The key to this working and succeeding is that we run this year’s festival just like we have every other festival. It is not a “women’s festival” or a “black festival” – it is, as always, a festival of “Just Great Movies”. Anything else will seem patronizing and false. You don’t get into this year’s festival because you’re a woman or a person of color – rather, you don’t get shut out, you don’t fail to be discovered because you’re a woman or person of color. The only real change for this year is that we are asking white men to graciously step aside as we make this correction. Yes, it’s a radical move. It’s also been a century of radical moves to keep the film industry nearly all white and nearly all male.

(And to be fair, we will do what is usually done at film festivals when the token bone is thrown to “women filmmakers”: We will present a small “Men Make Movies” sidebar where we will, in a supportive, not-too-condescending way, highlight some of the best films men have “struggled” to make this year. I’m also envisioning a “Really White Cinema” section also. We want white men to know that we value their art, and we want to encourage them not to give up.)