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Serious fun

(Horowitz in Cote d'Ivoire (Disruptive Pictures))


Serious fun

Ami Horowitz hopes to shed light on why the U.N. is not working through 'docutainment'

On a quiet Saturday night in 2006, investment banker Ami Horowitz was lying in bed in his Manhattan apartment watching Michael Moore's groundbreaking documentary Bowling for Columbine. As he was drifting off to sleep, he had an epiphany: Moore's irreverent style of filmmaking would be the perfect vehicle for exposing the tyranny and corruption long fostered in the United Nations. Except, of course, Moore would never make that film. That's when Horowitz, a conservative Jew, realized he could. He got up, started making notes, and less than two weeks later quit his job at Lehman Brothers to begin raising money for his first film project.

Fast-forward six years and the vision Horowitz had that night has become a reality. Rave reviews (including my own) are pouring in for U.N. Me (rated PG-13), a documentary that offers the kind of scathing and provocatively funny entertainment rarely seen in anything with a right-leaning point of view. After privately screening it for such luminaries as Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and Dick Cheney, Horowitz's film, which investigates both familiar and newly uncovered U.N. scandals, is now playing in major cities and is available at Apple's iTunes Store and on several cable system's video on demand services.

I recently spoke with Horowitz about the making of U.N. Me.

Tell me a little bit about how you came to a decision as drastic as quitting your profitable, secure job in the financial sector to dive into the precarious and often unprofitable entertainment industry. Even though I grew up in Los Angeles I never had any sort of desire to make a movie. But for some reason that night I was thinking about the United Nations. And I was thinking about their bias against Israel and about Rwanda, how here was this genocide that happened not in the olden days but in the '90s. And then I thought, forget the '90s, there's genocide going on today in the Sudan. I was thinking, here I am, ensconced in my comfortable, Upper West Side apartment, and there are people running for their lives right now in terror.

And I had two really strong emotions to these thoughts. The first was that I was infuriated. And the second was I felt really small, like there was no way I could change anything. And I hated having that feeling. I looked over at my TV screen, and that's when I had what I felt was a true epiphany from God. I thought, this medium that Michael Moore has really perfected-taking a topic and using satire to amplify your argument in a documentary-is perfect for this topic. And literally that night I stayed up all night and thought, "I have got to quit my job, this is the sacrifice I have got to make." It didn't start with my thinking, "I have to make a movie." It started out with my thinking about the U.N. Of course, now that I've been bitten by the filmmaking bug, I don't ever want to go back to investment banking.

One of the things that impressed me when I first saw U.N. Me was not only how well-paced and well-argued it is, but also how funny it is. Almost all the punch lines land. How does a first-time filmmaker pull that off? One of the things I'm really proud of is that while I'm a conservative, most of the guys I hired to work on my movie were liberal. If you're only going to reach out, in terms of talent, to a conservative talent pool … well, that isn't a very deep pool, so you're setting yourself up for failure. I knew what abilities I had and what abilities I didn't have, [laughing] mostly didn't have. So I knew I had to reach out for really good, deep talent, and the only way to do that was to hire liberals. So we got the cinematographer who shot An Inconvenient Truth. Our editor edited The Fog of War. And with our writers, I hired some guys from The Onion and The Daily Show and some of Michael Moore's guys. I had to reach out across party lines to bring together what I thought was an all-star team, and I think that's reflected in the quality. But at the same time I still kept true to the message. And when these guys saw the atrocities, the ludicrous nature of the U.N., they said "We've got to get this out there."

I actually became friendly with Michael Moore through this process, and though he vociferously disagrees with my premise, he's very supportive of conservatives making movies. He thinks we haven't done a good enough job. He loves mixing it up and doesn't shy away from heated discussion. Believe it or not, he's a fan of Sean Hannity's. He doesn't agree with anything Sean says, but he does like Sean's style.

Some traditionalists might argue against Moore's satirical style of documentary making. They might say it robs the subject of its importance. What are your thoughts? We live in a world where for better or worse-probably worse-more Americans under 25 get their news from The Daily Show. That's not a good thing, but that's the reality. People simply don't want to take 90 minutes of medicine. So we really worked hard to try to amp up the comedy, even though we were dealing with a hard subject. We call it "docutainment." And a lot of the comedy in U.N. Me comes from the juxtaposition of two crazy things: the reality of what these [U.N. leaders] are saying and doing versus what the U.N. claims its mission and purpose for existing is. It's sad to say that sometimes it's so outrageous that it's funny.

To get a lot of those funny bits you had to put yourself in some really dangerous situations. You have interviews with the Sudanese ambassador to the U.N. and a member of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inner circle, where they admit things they must wish they'd never said. We didn't have to get too confrontational with the interviews because the style we chose was less combative, where we pretended to agree with them.

I don't know if you're familiar with the film Borat and Sacha Baron Cohen's style of filmmaking, but he creates the character and the characters do the interviews, not Sacha Baron Cohen. So we thought we'd take a very similar route. To get access to these guys I basically had to pretend I was an anti-Israel, anti-American, self-hating Jew. And they loved that. That was right in their wheelhouse.

So we got crazy amounts of access to people like the Iranian ambassador of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] in the Iranian Embassy in Vienna. And the Iranians have assassinated people in Vienna, so we were really nervous doing that. We went to the Sudanese Embassy to interview the Sudanese ambassador and got him to say some incredibly, incredibly ridiculous things-things that were hilarious and sad and pathetic at the same time.

So I would say things like, "Oh yeah, I agree with the fact that you're slaughtering people in the streets and hanging gay people and beating women. Yeah that's cool, tell me more about that." And most of those people you see on screen thought the interviews went well when they were over.

Still, there had to be risks both financially and otherwise in taking on this project. How did your wife feel about them? My wife is a saint, and not just concerning the money, though this was a big hit for us financially. And there was also a little bit of a physical risk for me, as well, [laughing] or maybe more than a little bit.

When we were in Côte d'Ivoire we uncovered a massacre where French U.N. peacekeepers killed unarmed Ivorians. I came back to my hotel room and found a picture of a guy with his head blown off on my pillow. So that was a none-too-subtle hint that we weren't wanted there. And we were shelled during a convoy at one point, and those were things that obviously scared us.

But I was sensitive enough not to tell her about everything that happened until after I was home safe and sound.

I read in another interview where you said, "I'm not trying to tell an impartial story. The only thing I'm responsible for is the truth." I thought this was particularly interesting, as it points out something that seems very antithetical to the U.N.'s thinking-that truth and impartiality are not at all the same thing and are often in direct opposition to one another. That's what I'm trying to get out about the U.N. Their slavery to impartiality is ludicrous. It doesn't make them amoral; it makes them immoral. And I think that's where people get confused. The only master I had [when making the documentary] was the truth, and the truth led me to the fact that the U.N. isn't working.

One of my favorite lines in the movie, and it came from a liberal think tank employee, is that the U.N. has a hard time distinguishing who is the victim and who is the aggressor. And that says it all right there. Their entire worldview is backwards. It's bizarro world, where Israel, the one shining democracy in the Middle East, are the bad guys, and Iran and Sudan and North Korea pass judgment on them!

The League of Nations failed. The U.N., as you present the case, is failing. Is a world organization to promote the peace and prosperity of all nations even a realistic notion? It is, but there's only one way you can do it. You have to have an organization whose founding roots are liberty and freedom. You can't have a universal organization where governments that don't care about human rights work alongside governments that value it. That's why the U.N. doesn't work. You're never going to have Iran and Israel agree on anything outside the terms of their own destruction. And I think that's the fallacy in the U.N.'s thesis. They think that somehow if you can get people in a room they'll end up agreeing on things. Negotiation is great when you have two sides who are negotiating in good faith. But if you have one side negotiating in good faith and the other side using negotiation as a way to buy time to commit reprehensible deeds, then negotiation in that case is a bad thing. And the U.N. does not understand that concept

Listen to Megan Basham discuss Ami Horowitz and U.N. Me on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.