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20 years of 'Bowling for Columbine': Violence in American culture

'Bowling for Columbine' - Michael Moore

What happened at Columbine High School in 1999 has remained an indispensable part of the discourse surrounding gun control in the United States. However, the sociopolitical climate has continued to deteriorate as conversations about these issues have become incredibly polarised due to the pernicious machinations of social media platforms.

Just this month alone, there have been multiple reports of major mass shootings in the country including the horrifying incident that took place in Sacramento on Sunday, April 3rd, where six people died and twelve others were injured. Nine days later, Frank James boarded the New York City subway and opened fire.

When Michael Moore had released his most famous documentary project Bowling for Columbine, he had hoped that it would draw the country’s attention to the omnipresent climate of violence and that it would lead to reformations. Although it was a critical and commercial success, Moore believes that the film failed because it has been followed by “nearly two more decades of Columbine after Columbine after Columbine”.

Bowling for Columbine is undoubtedly an important work but it is often mistakenly categorised as a documentary; it is more of a sprawling essay fuelled by unwavering convictions. Moore has repeatedly admitted that objectivity is not a concern in his work because his main goal is to substantiate alternative viewpoints to general arguments with enough evidence.

That’s exactly why Bowling for Columbine isn’t just a documentary about how two seniors massacred students and shot themselves in a Colorado high school. Instead, Moore sets out to explore the sociopolitical frameworks of America within which violence manifests itself in deadly and completely “irrational” forms.

“I think that there’s something in the American psyche, it’s almost this kind of right or privilege, this sense of entitlement, to resolve our conflicts with violence,” Moore explained in an interview. “There’s an arrogance to that concept if you think about it. To actually have to sit down and talk, to listen, to compromise, that’s hard work. To go for the gun, that’s the cowardly act.” 

Throughout Bowling for Columbine, Moore is adamant in his insistence that these acts of indiscriminate violence aren’t irrational at all even though the mainstream media paints it that way. On the contrary, Moore shows us that such massacres are the logical conclusion in a country where violence is institutionalised in various ways.

Ranging from the segment about the bizarre bank which gives out free guns to new account holders (the bank later claimed that they were misled) to an interrogation of a Lockheed Martin executive at a facility near Columbine, Moore tries to get to the foundations of violence in American culture by examining it at an individual level as well as an international one.

Bowling for Columbine has remained an effective cinematic experience because it addresses many elements in the gun control debate. Over the years, many pro-gun activists have claimed that guns are merely tools and Moore looks at that as well by comparing the atmosphere of fear and paranoia in the US and the relative absence of such attitudes in Canada.

There are several fascinating conversations in the film but the most memorable parts of Bowling for Columbine are some of the sequences and montages, especially the iconic ‘What a Wonderful World’ segment that addresses the United States’ unending inclination toward interfering in international geopolitics through political destabilisation and violence.

Conservative commentators who are pro-gun rights have tried to suppress students and the survivors of school shootings by infantilising them, claiming that they do not have an understanding of the nuances of the political sphere. As a direct response, Bowling for Columbine highlights the undeniable incompetency at the highest levels of government which has contributed to the creation of a culture of violence (Moore also protested against the policies of George W. Bush and was booed at the Oscars).

Bowling for Columbine has faced all kinds of criticisms from various sources for multiple reasons but two decades later, it is still a crucially important work because the conversation it generates is, unfortunately, more relevant than ever. As the new generation fights for a better and safer future, the questions asked by Moore will ring out louder than ever.

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