The title of Ami Horowitz’s first movie, “U.N. Me,” sounds a bit like “Roger and Me,” the 1989 feature that began Michael Moore’s genre-redefining documentary career. The similarity, Horowitz says, was not intended.
“My wife came up with the name, so if I want to stay married, it had to stay the title.”
Still, the former Lehman Brothers investment banker readily acknowledges that Moore is his cinematic model. Although he’s considerably to the right of Moore on most issues, Horowitz cites “Bowling for Columbine” as the inspiration for his first-person exposéof the United Nations.
“He and I have become somewhat friendly, oddly enough,” says Horowitz of the “Fahrenheit 9/11” director. “I would say that he and I disagree on more things than we agree on. We agree on some things. This is not one of them, by the way.”
“U.N. Me” strafes the United Nations, alternately with ridicule or outrage, over such issues as the misbehavior of its peacekeepers in war zones, its inability to define the word “terrorism,” its failure to prevent the Rwandan bloodbath and the corruption of its former program to barter Iraqi oil for food. These are not laugh-out-loud topics, but in the movie Horowitz plays the role of jester as much as inquisitor.
“I gotta play by the rules,” says Horowitz, a small man wearing a checked suit and a big watch, during an interview in his local PR firm’s conference room. “The rules of the game are: ‘You want me to listen to you? Entertain me.’ ”
“That was ultimately one of the most difficult parts of making this movie. How do we balance the pathos and the humor?”
“We dial the humor down a bit on Rwanda,” he adds, laughing.
The documentary was written and directed with Matthew Groff, but Horowitz is the man in front of the camera. He’s seen visiting the Ivory Coast, where French U.N. peacekeepers fired on unarmed protesters. He also wanders unescorted through the United Nations’s Manhattan headquarters, and rebukes attendees — briefly and without an invitation — of a U.N. conference in Geneva.
His goal, Horowitz says, was not simply to parade his distaste for the organization. “Ultimately it’s not just about me. The ‘me’ isn’t necessarily me. It’s partially about the relationship I had with the U.N. during the course of this movie. It’s also the U.N. and the viewer. The viewer is the ‘me.’ ”
Horowitz admits to having class-clown tendencies when he was in school. “I did an early screening of this movie, and the principal of my school was there. He asked the first question. He said, ‘Your chutzpah finally found an outlet.’ ”
Although the United Nations’s treatment of Israel is only a tangential issue in Horowitz’s movie, the subject is crucial to him. “My mother’s Israeli, and I have a lot of family there. And I’m Jewish. So it’s a natural connection. It’s unbelievable to me that a country like Israel, which really embodies all the things we want in a country — egalitarianism, pluralism, freedom — is demonized.”
The filmmaker argues that “the U.N. has a moral blindness. It doesn’t like to pass judgment. They say, ‘Who are we to say you’re doing wrong? This is not our job.’ Well, it is their job.”
His critique also draws on tea-party-style politics. “One obvious thing that resonates with people today is that this is big government, writ large. And I think the bigger the government you have, naturally, the more corrupt it gets.”
Aside from the diplomats Horowitz tries to put on the spot, most of the movie’s interviewees are American conservatives. (One notable exception is Jody Williams, founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.) But the director does raise issues that aren’t necessarily a priority for the right, such as Iran’s persecution of gays. And he says the movie’s $2 million budget was raised “almost 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.”
The crew’s background was certainly bipartisan. Horowitz hired cinematographers Robert Richman and Wolfgang Held and editor Doug Abel, whose combined credits include “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Borat” and “The Fog of War.”
“I knew what I wanted to get out of my brain, but I didn’t know how to get it out,” the first-time director says. “These guys were able to pull it out and get it on film.”
Getting “U.N. Me” into theaters hasn’t been easy. The documentary, which opened Friday in Washington and other major cities, has been on the film-festival circuit since late 2009. But it’s been well received there, Horowitz says. Many viewers seem to get the movie’s mix of indignation and mockery.
“For people for whom this is new information, the humor doesn’t work quite as well,” Horowitz allows. “For people who understand it, the humor works great.”
The filmmaker has watched the movie with audiences dozens of times but remembers one especially satisfying time when he observed the reaction of a couple sitting near him. “The scene where I’m interviewing the Iranian diplomat in Geneva about gays. He was laughing; the guy was cracking up. His wife says, ‘What are you laughing about? This is terrible!’ And he says, ‘I know, but it’s so funny.’
“That’s exactly the kind of reaction I want to get out of people.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.