A Maverick Mogul, Proudly Politically Incorrect
THOR HALVORSSEN is a hard man to pin down. If you ask him whether he?s a human-rights activist, a free-speech advocate, an anti-Communist, an anti-fascist or a movie producer, he could plausibly answer “all of the above.”
“He’s uncategorizable,” Nat Hentoff, the journalist and First Amendment advocate, said. “Thor’s the embodiment of the nonpolitically correct person.”
Mr. Halvorssen, a half-Norwegian Venezuelan, is a conservative operating in fields more often associated with liberals, a scion of wealth and privilege who champions the underdog and the powerless, and a polemicist who loves a lively argument. “I have a lot of fun being a heretic,” Mr. Halvorssen, 31, explained, pacing around a small office in the Empire State Building that was strewn with books, magazines and DVDs.
Since 2005, having already founded two nonprofit organizations focused on free speech and human-rights issues, Mr. Halvorssen has made the movie business part of his portfolio of controversy-stirring efforts. Established with a small amount of his money, his nonprofit Moving Picture Institute has raised about $1.5 million in donations to date to pay for, promote and seek distribution for documentary films.
At a time when the most successful documentaries on political or social issues all seem to be anti-corporate, anti-Bush, pro-environmentalist and left-leaning, the Moving Picture Institute has backed pro-business, anti-Communist and even anti-environmentalist ones. The latest, “Indoctrinate U,” follows the first-time filmmaker Evan Coyne Maloney as he turns Michael Moore’s guerrilla interview tactics on their head to address what he sees as political correctness on campus. In one scene, Mr. Maloney strolls into the women’s studies centers on several campuses and, playing innocent, asks directions to the men’s studies center. He is met with genuine bafflement, derisive laughs or icy hostility.
To Mr. Halvorssen his new role as a fledgling movie mogul dovetails perfectly with his other activities. “Pop culture has the power to be transformational culture,” he said. “A film can reach a lot more people than a white paper. You could think of the film as a trailer for the white paper.”
He paused, then said, “Put it this way: What ‘Sideways’ did for pinot noir, I want to do for freedom.”
Boyish and clean-cut, Mr. Halvorssen doesn’t look much like the Viking his name suggests. His grandfather, Oestein Halvorssen, went to Venezuela as the Norwegian king’s consul and built a family dynasty as the Venezuelan representative for corporations including Dunlop and Ericsson.
His father (also Thor) and uncle Olaf “lived in the ultrafast lane” among Venezuela’s most eligible playboys. They flew to Paris for weekends, and while Olaf dated Candice Bergen, Thor lured the girls to his place to meet his pet lion, Petunia.
Mr. Halvorssen’s father eventually settled down, accepting appointments as a cabinet minister and diplomat, and married into one of Venezuela’s first families, descendants of the country’s first two presidents, Cristobal Mendoza and Simon Bolivar.
“The politics in my house was all over the place,” he said, recalling Nicaraguan refugees from the Sandanista regime holding meetings in his house and a trip with his father when he was 8 to meet Oscar Arias, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president of Costa Rica. “But there were key principles that were very basic.”
His upbringing helped make a self-described “classical liberal” rather than a conservative, big on free markets and individual liberties, and convinced that “government is not your friend most of the time,” he said. “And I abhor fascism, whether it’s socialist or National Socialist.”
He arrived in the United States to attend the University of Pennsylvania, but as a 19-year-old sophomore in 1993 the theories of his youth got a real-world workout when his father was arrested in Venezuela. As the country’s anti-drug minister, Mr. Halvorssen said, his father had led investigations revealing involvement in international drug trafficking at the highest levels of Venezuela’s government and banking. For his efforts he was imprisoned, charged with masterminding a series of bombings in the Caracas financial district. Mr. Halvorssen helped organize an international campaign for his father’s release. After 74 days all charges were dropped.
A decade later it was Mr. Halvorssen’s mother’s turn. In 2004, during a trip to Caracas, she was shot and seriously wounded when gunmen fired into a rally calling for a national referendum to recall President Hugo Chavez. Eleven other protestors were wounded and one killed.
“So you can see why I take this stuff personally,” Mr. Halvorssen said.
“This stuff” includes the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, of which he was a co-founder in 1998 and a director through 2004. (Mr. Hentoff is a board member.) It focuses media attention and legal aid on instances of overzealous political correctness and free-speech restrictions at American colleges. And the Human Rights Foundation, whose advisory board includes Elie Wiesel, focuses on civil-rights abuses in Latin America.
These concerns animate the Motion Picture Institute’s films. “The Sugar Babies,” a documentary by Amy Serrano that Mr. Halvorssen helped produce, takes on the issue human trafficking of Haitian workers on sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic. A screening at Florida International University in June erupted into what local press described as “a near riot” between Dominican and Haitian audience members.
Other documentaries championed by the Motion Picture Institute include “Hammer & Tickle,” a lighthearted look at the subversive jokes Soviet citizens told about their leaders.
And Mr. Halvorssen was a co-producer of “Freedom’s Fury,” narrated by Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, which describes the role Hungary’s Olympic water polo team played in that nation’s 1956 uprising against its Soviet occupiers.
No doubt the most contentious film on the Motion Picture Institute roster so far is “Mine Your Own Business,” billed as “the world’s first anti-environmentalist documentary.” Phelim McAleer, an Irish journalist who received a fellowship from the Motion Picture Institute, traveled to Romania, Madagascar and Chile, where international environmental groups oppose planned mining operations. His film – financed by Gabriel Resources, a Canadian mining company – portrays environmentalists as condescending elitists while impoverished locals insist they would welcome the jobs and development the mines would bring.
Greenpeace and other environmental groups denounced the film as corporate propaganda and protested outside a screening at the National Geographic Society in Washington in January.
“It’s typical propaganda from anti-regulation types,” said Kert Davies, Greenpeace’s research director, adding that there has been much more community opposition to the proposed mines than the film suggests.
“Indoctrinate U” aims to stir up as big a ruckus. It’s the first film by Mr. Maloney, the conservative son of liberal New York City parents. A fan of Mr. Moore’s techniques, if not his politics, he met Mr. Moore, the director of “Sicko,” in the only proper way. “I found out where he lived, staked out his street for four days” and ambushed Mr. Moore on the sidewalk, camera running.
“He was surprisingly encouraging and surprisingly nice,” Mr. Maloney added. “He told me to go for it and make my movie.”
But as Mr. Halvorssen and Mr. Maloney have found, getting a documentary made is one thing, getting it released in theaters and on DVD is another. “Distributors are starting to shy away” from documentaries, said Morgan Spurlock, the director of “Super Size Me,” “simply because there haven’t been a lot of documentaries in the last few years that made a lot of money.” (“March of the Penguins” and “An Inconvenient Truth” are among the few exceptions.)
But Mr. Spurlock believes that a movie like “Indoctrinate U” “could be a lightning rod,” he said. “Movies that get attention and spark a dialogue, get people talking on news shows, can be profitable at the box office.”
Lately Mr. Halvorssen has been making many trips to Los Angeles to meet with film distributors, producers and assorted Hollywood wheelers and dealers to convince them that the film has the potential to make money in theaters and through DVD sales. “There is no left-wing conspiracy in Hollywood, no manual that says they will not distribute films of this sort,” he insisted.
Nonetheless Mr. Halvorssen and Mr. Maloney are exploring alternative ways to reach audiences. Mr. Halvorssen arranged for the film to open at the American Film Renaissance Festival, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, on Sept. 28. And working directly with theater owners and managers he has to date brokered limited theatrical runs, beginning in October, in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington and seven other cities. (He’s still working on New York.)
Borrowing tactics from their left-leaning brethren like Robert Greenwald, who spurred interest in his films “Wal-Mart” and “Iraq for Sale” by inviting people to hold screenings in their churches or homes, Mr. Halvorssen and Mr. Maloney are also trying to harness the Internet. Visitors to indoctrinate-u.com can request a screening in their hometowns. A Google map displays the results. More than 20,000 requests have been made.
Mr. Halvorssen speaks of a “YouTube revolution” with the Internet, along with on-demand cable and satellite television, freeing independent filmmakers from Hollywood dominance.
Ultimately, he added, he hopes that “exploiting technology, marketing and alternative distribution will transform human rights, making it inspiring and even sexy.”