This Divided State (documentary)

When it was announced that Michael Moore would speak at Utah Valley State College two weeks before the 2004 presidential election, the locals went berserk. You might just as well have announced it was raining sheep dip for all the uproar and indignation it caused.

For you see, UVSC is in Orem, Utah, right next to Provo, which is home to Brigham Young University. That area (known as Utah Valley) is a hotbed of ultra-conservatism and orthodox Mormonism. I was living in the slightly more liberal Salt Lake City (40 miles to the north) by then, but I’d just spent nine years in Provo and Orem, where 95 percent of the population is Mormon and Republicans outnumber Democrats 12 to 1. It is not the sort of place where you’d imagine Michael Moore receiving a warm welcome, particularly not right before a divisive election.

I witnessed all this hoopla first-hand, and I wrote a column about it at the time. And now Steven Greenstreet, a fellow BYU alum, has produced “This Divided State,” a fantastic on-the-scenes account of the entire story, from the initial announcement up through Moore’s actual visit, as well as the aftermath.

Perhaps the documentary seems more compelling to me because I followed the story when it first happened. But then, maybe it will be just as intriguing to a novice. I already knew all the major facts, after all, yet still found their retelling utterly absorbing.

The UVSC students officers, led by student body president Jim Bassi and his vice-president Joe Vogel, paid Moore $50,000 to speak on campus on Oct. 20. Students and community members alike immediately objected to the visit, ostensibly for financial reasons: Why spend $50,000 of their money for a speaker most of them did not want to hear?

The validity of that argument evaporated when the speaking engagement immediately sold out and the cost was covered by ticket sales. With the event now essentially free, those protesting on the grounds of mishandled funds now had much less of a leg to stand on. (Not that this stopped them.)

Some of those protesters were well-meaning but misguided. More alarming was someone who was better-educated, richer and more powerful. He is Kay Anderson, an Orem businessman, family man, outspoken conservative activist and 100 percent obnoxious bastard.

Greenstreet begins “This Divided State” with a quote from Mormon founder Joseph Smith: “Political views and party distinctions should never disturb the harmony of society.” If it seems unfair to quote a religious leader before a story that is merely political, remember this: Nothing is merely political in Utah Valley. Everything is religious, whether it ought to be or not. There are some people there who will take your disagreeing with them on politics to mean that you have gone astray religiously.

Kay Anderson exemplifies this attitude, and Greenstreet lets him emerge as one of the biggest jackasses in all of documentary filmdom, simply by letting him speak. Anderson has an astonishing hatred for Michael Moore, calling him “evil,” saying “it’s disrespectful to bring him into this bastion of conservativism.”

Listen to Anderson on Moore’s scheduled visit: “Orem City is one of the most conservative cities in the most conservative county in the most conservative state in the union, and this man despises who we are … and he would like to destroy us.” (What? Really? Michael Moore hates families and religion? All because he opposes President Bush and the war in Iraq? Huh.)

Anderson on the UVSC faculty members who stood up during a Sean Hannity speech and tried to debate with him: “We were embarrassed that we hired these kinds of people to educate our children.” (What “kinds of people” does he mean? People who disagree with Sean Hannity. And P.S., the greater embarrassment is that you sent your children to UVSC in the first place, but I digress.)

Anderson on how those liberals in Hannity’s audience were then shouted down and booed by the rest of the crowd: “We are a very respectful people, we don’t believe in booing somebody out of town. [No, I guess you prefer to prevent them from coming to town in the first place.] We actually do believe in allowing people to have their say. [Just not Michael Moore.] But when one of our own stands up and embarrasses us, we’re gonna put them in their place, I guess.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Anderson readily acknowledges that Moore’s speech is no longer a financial issue, noting that the appearance has sold out. His point is that Moore does not represent the local values, and that bringing him here is like bringing evil itself into the community. (One wonders how the event managed to sell out so fast if no locals want to hear him speak, but OK.)

A UVSC faculty member extends Anderson’s logic: Are the UVSC students, few though they may be, who agree with Michael Moore unwelcome on campus, too? We are not given Anderson’s response.

A meeting is held on campus for all interested parties to express their views. Since Moore’s speaking fee has already been paid, canceling the event would mean losing that money. To offset this, Anderson whips out a $25,000 cashier’s check that he will give to UVSC if the college will cancel Moore’s visit. He is booed. The college declines the offer.

The more level-headed students note that simply disagreeing with someone’s politics is not a good reason to prevent that person from speaking on campus. Moore is not a pedophile or a rapist, someone observes. He is merely an outspoken liberal Democrat. Surely letting him speak will not do any harm. If you don’t want to hear him, don’t go.

Meanwhile, UVSC arranges for Sean Hannity — a frequent visitor to Utah Valley, where he is rabidly supported — to speak a few weeks before Moore. Hannity graciously forgoes his usual speaking fee of $100,000, asking that UVSC simply pay his travel expenses. Alas, these include a private jet. Total cost for Hannity’s free appearance: about $50,000 (also offset by ticket sales, of course).

Greenstreet includes good-sized chunks of both Hannity’s and Moore’s appearances, as much as time would allow in a documentary of this scope. What they actually said in their speeches wasn’t the core of the issue anyway, of course. It was the fact that they were speaking at all.

Greenstreet gets a little distracted along the way with nonsense like a Utah Valley Michael Moore look-alike who’s a Republican, and a group of “Star Wars” fans, dressed up to celebrate the DVD release of that film, talking about the impending Moore visit. These details give some flavor but ultimately detract from the main thread.

More sympathy is given to the Moore supporters than to the objectors, but the film remains fairly balanced as a whole. You hear the irate voice-mails left on Jim Bassi’s phone by Moore detractors (one asks if UVSC will next invite Hitler or Saddam to come speak), and you think, “Sure, but what about the calm, rational people who didn’t think Michael Moore should speak at UVSC? Why aren’t they represented?” And I suppose the answer is there aren’t any people like that. Saying that Michael Moore should not speak on a college campus simply because most people in the community disagree with him is not a rational position.

The film is an eye-opener about the delirious narrow-mindedness that exists in the world, at how people will twist their own religious beliefs to mean preposterous things never intended by the founders of those beliefs. People accuse the UVSC student leaders of having betrayed their religion, their country and their families simply by inviting Michael Moore to speak on campus.

I hope audiences will not think Kay Anderson represents Mormons in general. I’m still reeling over this statement of his, in which he indicates his desire to remain isolated and sheltered from the rest of society:

“To us, (Utah Valley) is the best place in the world, and we don’t want it destroyed. We don’t want it changed. We don’t want Utah County to become like the rest of the world. It’s a safe haven, if you will. A place where I can raise my children away from ‘the world.’ I don’t want ‘the world’ in Utah County. We can go visit.”

Near the end of the film, there is a stirring montage of everyone voting on Election Day. Bassi and his wife walk hand-in-hand to the polls, Anderson and his wife vote, Vogel is there, the various professors are there, there’s news footage of Moore, Kerry and Bush all casting their votes. This was, after all, what it came down to: the right to holler and yell and persuade and encourage, but then ultimately to vote your conscience.

B+ (1 hr., 28 min.; Not Rated, probably PG-13 for a little profanity, glimpses of the F-word on some signs.)