TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Bathed in spotlight on a darkened stage, Michael Moore (search) sounded downright conciliatory toward his detractors while welcoming a capacity crowd to a film festival in his adopted hometown.
"This is the America we want to believe in, where we can all have our various beliefs but come together for the greater good of the community," the left-wing documentary filmmaker said to a thunderous ovation.
The Oscar winner, known for humorous but bitingly satirical productions such as "Roger & Me" (search) and "Fahrenheit 9/11," (search) described good movies as a bridge across the political divide for people "tired of the hate, tired of the yelling, tired of ... the screamfests, the talk radio."
But chatting with fans Thursday at the inaugural Traverse City Film Festival, Moore acknowledged putting aside political differences could be tough for him — especially when hearing that more U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq.
"It's very hard to love a Republican at that moment," said Moore, who denounced the war and President Bush when accepting an Academy Award for "Bowling for Columbine" (search) in 2003.
And he served notice that his next documentary, "Sicko," (search) a critique of the nation's health care system, would pull no punches. The idea arose from a segment in one of Moore's former television shows with a mock funeral on the grounds of a health-maintenance organization refusing to pay for a dying man's surgery.
"Freaked-out" HMOs are warning employees what to do if approached by Moore and his camera crew, he said with a chuckle. "At this point we haven't shot anything yet and they're totally discombobulated."
Moore said he had no apology for making politically themed films: "When in this great democracy did 'political' become a dirty word?"
But such films are most effective when their primary goal is artistic excellence, he said, adding that liberals turn people off with too much "finger wagging" and too little humor.
"Comedy was the vehicle of the left a hundred years ago — Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx brothers," Moore said. When making "Roger & Me," which showed how auto plant closings devastated his native Flint, "I thought by letting people laugh a little bit, they would actually leave the theater more angry about what was going on."
Moore, who now lives near Traverse City, founded the film festival with local movie buffs. It began Wednesday night with two showings of "Mad Hot Ballroom," (search) a lighthearted documentary about a dance competition between elementary school children in New York City.
More than 1,100 people packed a historic downtown theater that had been closed for years until volunteers refurbished it for the festival.
Thirty other films were being shown over the next four days, most of them independently produced documentaries, dramas and comedies. None of Moore's films are on the list.
The event has inspired a rival conservative "freedom film festival" scheduled for this weekend. Among the titles: "Michael Moore Hates America." (search)
But leaders of Moore's festival insist it's not a political platform, but a celebration of high-quality cinema involving hundreds of volunteers and businesses representing a variety of beliefs.
A local radio station that airs right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh promoted the festival. State Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer, a Republican elected last fall after Moore campaigned for his opponent, penned a supportive column in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
"I have to admit I've never seen any of his movies," said volunteer Bonnie Willings, 59. "I'm just grateful he's using his connections to bring all these great movies here."