From free college tuition to humane incarceration, Europe has many of the answers.

Michael Moore.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

When it was announced that Michael Moore was releasing his first documentary in six years this fall, titled “Where To Invade Next,” there was much speculation as to what the film was about. Moore, who is usually not shy about publicity, refused to talk about the film while he was shooting it, and recently has revealed only: “It’s not what you think it is.”

Last night, an audience the Toronto International Film Festival was treated to the world premiere of the project — and a searing takedown of the military industrial complex it is not. Rather, “Where to Invade Next,” is part travelogue, part love letter to European socialist ideals, and part urgent call to action.

In the film Moore travels through a string of (mostly) European countries and “invades” them by taking back their best progressive ideals and “stealing” them for the U.S. As he put it in a Q&A after the film, Moore didn’t shoot any of the film in the U.S; rather, he felt he could scrutinize “who we are in a more hopefully profound and devastating way by going elsewhere, so we could maybe examine what happened to our American Soul.”

In Italy, Moore revels in the notion of 8 weeks of paid vacation, and 5-month paid maternity leaves. In France, he is astounded at the healthy and delicious lunches served in even the poorest schools (not to mention the selection of 80 cheeses the school chef prepares for dessert). He examines the humane Norweigan prison system, Portugal’s successful decriminalization of drugs, Slovenia’s free higher education system, and Finland’s eradication of standardized tests. He uses Germany as a case study in how to treat your workers — and how come to terms with a painful national past. And he focuses extensively on the idea that women are the most powerful force for social change, from the many female bankers, politicians and CEOs who have helped remake Iceland to the Tunisian activists who fought successfully for a women’s rights amendment to their constitution.

Along the way, Moore finds fascinating subjects to speak to, including a Norwegian father who lost his son in the Utøya massacre yet does not seek retribution and a compelling Tunisian journalist who implores Americans, conquerers of global culture, to look beyond themselves and express curiosity about the vast world outside their borders. And of course, he contrasts European utopianism with the state of affairs in the U.S., interspersing clips of Ferguson, police and prison violence and the dismal treatment of veterans to serve as a a harsh indictment of our failing social welfare system.

While the film is squarely aimed at American audiences, the Toronto audience lapped it up (no doubt engaging in a healthy dose of schadenfreude while doing so) and gave Moore a standing ovation, and it’s safe to say that the filmmaker’s longtime fans will feel the same way. With its polemical tone, zippy humor and broad appeal to progressive ideas, it feels very much like a compliment to his previous works, a broad progressive mission statement that eschews the myopic focus of “Bowling for Columbine” or “Sicko.” That said, the film feels even less balanced than his previous films, entirely glossing over the many persistent social injustices that exist side-by-side in the countries he exalts.

In a post-screening Q&A, Moore acknowledged that many will criticize the film’s positive slant on countries where many egregious social issues still exist (“Italy? Italy is a fucking mess! Greece? He didn’t go to Greece, did he!”), he said his goal here was to “pick the flowers and not the weeds” — and to show Americans that the world outside fortress U.S.A. isn’t just a socialist hellscape, because the mainstream media does plenty of that.

“We don’t need to watch another documentary saying how fucked up this thing is or fucked up that thing is,” Moore said. “We need to get off our asses and get inspired by what we can do.”

Indeed, what be most surprising about the film is how optimistic it is. In the Q&A, Moore explained that his crew lovingly dubbed the film “Mike’s happy movie,” and his “no problems, all solutions movie.” Certainly, it feels like a very personal project for him; Moore appeared to almost tear up onstage as he thanked everyone for “the love that exists in the world and in my life,” citing recent personal events, including his father’s death and recently turning 60, that prompted him to start “living differently.”

And whatever inner peace Moore has reached as of late, he wants to believe that his country can attain a measure of the same. Pointing to things like the fall of the Berlin Wall, which he witnessed as a young man, and more recently, America’s legalization of gay marriage and watershed women’s rights movements like Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech, Moore said he realized that “anything can happen.”

“I’ve never been a cynic, I’ve always believed that cynicism is just a different form of narcissism,” he told the rapt Toronto audience. “And I do believe in the goodness of people, and I do believe most people have a conscience, they know right from wrong…they’re just afraid, or they’re ignorant, but once those things get fixed, stop living in fear, stop being stupid, things will get better.”

Citing his line in the film that “anything is possible,” Moore continued: “I believe we can start to make the case for all of this could happen in the next 2-3 years, and I actually think that will happen. It’s going to happen because young people are going to make it happen. There are not as many haters in the young generation as there are in the older generation … the young people will come up and they don’t have that level of hate, and they know they got a raw deal, they got a raw fucking deal. And we gave it to them, my generation, which was not right, and we should try to do something about it.”

But, just in case Michael Moore’s American utopia takes a few years to get off the ground, Moore had a gift for the young people in the audience: Pencils made by the unionized, middle-class German workers we saw in the film, along with applications to tuition-free Slovenian university.