Jan-michael Stump / AP
Michael Moore and others established Michigan's Traverse City Film Festival in 2005. Four films shown there this year were by filmmakers who previously worked with Moore.
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - They make movies that deal with unpleasant topics such as war and racism, yet are entertaining and even humorous. They're passionate, mischievously creative, politically liberal.
Does this sound like "Michael Moore The Next Generation"?
If so, there's a good reason. These filmmakers once worked with Moore on pictures such as "Roger & Me" and "Fahrenheit 9/11." Now they're turning out documentaries of their own.
"Michael's body of work has changed the landscape for all documentary filmmakers," director-producer Carl Deal said. "He's kicked open the doors, he's broken the rules. He's made clear that you can actually make a commercially viable documentary film."
Deal and partner Tia Lessin made "Trouble the Water," one of four films by former Moore collaborators shown at the recent Traverse City Film Festival, which Moore and others established in 2005.
Organizers dubbed the group "Mike's Peeps." Moore insisted their entries were chosen for screenings on their own merits, not favoritism.
"They made four of the best films this year," he said. "We don't bring movies to this festival that are mediocre, or aren't very good, or it was a nice try or whatever."
The other "peep" films included "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," directed by Gini Reticker; "Bigger Stronger, Faster," co-produced by Kurt Engfehr; and first-time director Jason Pollock's "The Youngest Candidate."
"I think most documentary filmmakers nowadays are Michael Moore disciples," said Pollock, 26, like Moore a college dropout who found his calling in the cinema. "I see a lot of him in my film."
The new generation is making its mark nearly two decades after Moore's 1989 debut, "Roger & Me," a dark comedy about the devastation wrought by General Motors Corp.'s downsizing in Flint, Mich. Reticker helped edit the film after Moore brought an early version to New York.
"I thought, 'Oh my god, this is great — so fresh, so original,'" Reticker said.
Deal and Lessin saw "Roger & Me" in a theater and became Moore fans. A few years later, Lessin saw the first episode of Moore's short-lived television newsmagazine "TV Nation."
"There was no 'Daily Show' back then, no Jon Stewart," she said. "Michael did things on camera no one was doing, said things no one was saying. I was determined to get a job on that show, and by golly I did."
She became a producer on "TV Nation" and its madcap successor, "The Awful Truth," once landing in jail and earning a lifetime ban from Disneyland after filming a segment there featuring the character "Crackers, the Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken."
Lessin and Deal, both 43, later worked on the Oscar-winning documentary "Bowling for Columbine."
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, they headed for New Orleans and met Kimberly and Scott Roberts, survivors of flooding in the Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit areas.
Kimberly Roberts had purchased a video camera days earlier. She recorded gripping scenes of their peril and narrow escape, which Lessin and Deal incorporated into "Trouble the Water."
"Our work with Michael was always about exposing government and corporate accountability," Lessin said. "This film shows how the government failed miserably. But it's also a story of how people can beat the odds and survive."
It opens in theaters this month after being named best documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Reticker also sees Moore as a kindred spirit, while acknowledging satire isn't her specialty.
"Pray the Devil Back to Hell," which took top documentary honors at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a straightforward and uplifting chronicle of the Christian and Muslim women's movement that ended civil war in Liberia and helped elect the African nation's first female president.
"Those of us who work with Michael believe in a lot of the same things — the desire to look at things in a different way, to look at issues that aren't in the mainstream media," Reticker said.
"Bigger, Stronger, Faster" bears close resemblance to a Moore movie, as director Christopher Bell narrates a funny yet sad romp through the underworld of illegal steroid use by athletes and bodybuilders — including himself and his two brothers.
But it's different in at least one respect: Instead of Moore-like outrage, the tone is more neutral, leaving viewers to decide whether juicing in pursuit of the all-American dream of being No. 1 is really so bad.
Engfehr, 46, co-producer of the film as well as "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," said he's a believer in making points through real-life characters and events.
Some of the most effective messages in films "are ones that arise naturally as the result of telling good stories," he said.
Pollock, youngest of the "peeps," was Moore's personal assistant for nearly three years before leaving to make his own movies.
His debut film, "The Youngest Candidate," follows four teenagers who ran for city council or mayor in recent elections. Their cities are different but similar obstacles confront them, from condescending opponents to dirty tricks such as theft of campaign signs.
Although his views are as left-wing as Moore's, Pollock strikes a nonpartisan tone. The underlying premise — youth people should get involved in politics — is uncontroversial. And Pollock stays in the background, while Moore frequently takes center stage in his pictures.
Still, Moore's influence is there. As 19-year-old Ytit Chauhan campaigns for councilman in Atlantic City, N.J., he's approached by several white youths. One asks Chauhan, who is of Indian descent, to lift his shirt. Pollock, smelling a rat, swings the camera toward the youth and casually asks why he made the request.
The youth's candid response: Because I'm afraid he's carrying a bomb.
Pollock figures the revealing exchange might not have happened if he'd come on too strongly. While some might identify Moore with bullhorns and bombast, Pollock says he learned from his mentor that a simple "How come?" is sometimes the most effective way to expose a villain.
Still seeking a distributor, Pollock plans a tour of college campuses with his film this fall — after a screening at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Eventually, he wants to make scripted movies as well as documentaries.
"But after working for Michael, I'll never make a film that doesn't say something about our society. He showed me that art has no point if you're not going to try to have a positive effect on the world."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.