Wednesday, November 02, 2005

COLUMN -- Documentary to tell smoking ban tale

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:50 AM |  

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

No one shouted, "Quiet on the set!" The ambient noise in the Marysburg Books Coffee Emporium & Wine Bar was as much a part of the shot as this columnist, shifting about in a Masterpiece Theater-like easy chair while the crew tweaked lighting and camera angles.

I am among scores on either side of the smoking ban issue being interviewed for the independent documentary "Devil's Weed." The film (fall 2006 release) will chronicle the smoking ban fallout in the Twin Cities and examine the ban trend across the country — "America's New Prohibition."

Ouch! I agree with that characterization, but credibility is this columnist's stock in trade and it can ill afford betrayal on a hatchet job — even one supporting my opinion. When producer Curt Johnson (2002 Oscar for "Thoth") requested an interview, some research was in order.

"Devil's Weed" director Maura Flynn's resume is solid civil libertarian — Reason magazine, the Individual Rights Foundation and the Radio America Network. She co-produced, with Johnson, Michael Wilson's critically praised "Michael Moore Hates America."

Despite its title, the Flynn/Johnson collaboration with Wilson produced a very evenhanded film. Liberal-leaning recognized that "Michael Moore Hates America" "had surprising nuance and commendable sincerity" before predictably defending Moore. It received "two thumbs up" from mainstream critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper. Show biz bible Variety called the film "far more jocular, good-natured and thoughtful than Moore partisans might expect."

"We'll let people tell their stories in their own words," said Flynn of "Devil's Weed." "We'll bring out issues and flesh out beliefs on both sides. A documentary is not Team A against Team B. There's a whole range of opinion and shades of opinion."

After being interviewed, observing interviews and watching Flynn and Johnson work the crowd at a Hennepin County commissioners meeting, I'm confident "Devil's Weed" will provide a much needed two-sided look at smoking bans. Others disagree.

Robert Moffitt, communications director of the American Lung Association of Minnesota, was one of the first to publicly pan the "Devil's Weed" project and one of the quickest ban supporters to decline making a public health case for the film.

"The topic of smoke-free ordinances has been debated openly and fairly in Minnesota for several years, in public hearings and forums and in the news media," writes Moffitt behind the ALAMN institutional barricade. "All sides of this issue have been heard, the results are clear: The vast majority of Minnesotans support the bans and enjoy the smoke-free bars, restaurants and clubs."

Indeed, more than 70 percent of Minnesotans who were surveyed favor smoking bans. If majority "enjoyment" were the end of the story, there'd be no need for "Devil's Weed," and as Moffitt would prefer, debate would fall silent.

"Yesterday the local branch of the American Lung Association called my house," a Minneapolis woman, a nonsmoker, wrote to me. The ALA asked her to endorse a petition supporting the Hennepin County smoking ban.

"A year ago I probably would have said yes," she noted. "However, I (said) no — because I knew someone who owned an establishment that had been negatively impacted financially as a result, and I also felt this was an issue of civil liberties. … I felt angry that taxpayers' or donors' money was being used in this politicized manner."

The locally contracted crew shooting "Devil's Weed" had the same Damascus experience after hearing both sides of the issue.

"I'm a nonsmoker and until this week a naive supporter of the smoking ban," cameraman Anthony Rodriguez said. "I didn't realize the full (negative) effect of smoking bans on bar owners."

"I thought of the smoking ban only as a health issue," audio engineer Mike Severson said. "But it's also a civil liberties issue."

"It's just another freedom lost," Rodriguez said. "If they're not involved, people don't know what's really happening."

To the chagrin of ban supporters like Moffitt, by simply presenting both sides of the issue "Devil's Weed" is bound to create a wider, more critical and discerning public and governmental view of smoking bans. Non-participant Moffitt will call "Devil's Weed" biased; I prefer to call it what it really is — freely informed debate.

Category: Column, Smoking Ban, Public Health, Journalism