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There’s No ‘Real America’: How One Documentary Avoided Clichés (and Trump Talk) While Chronicling a Midwestern Small Town

Legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman discusses ‘Monrovia, Indiana,’ his acclaimed new movie about a red-state community that’s nothing like how they’re portrayed in the media

Long before Donald Trump’s election, there’s been a tension in this country between so-called coastal elites and the “real America,” this mythical place where hard-working, unpretentious, God-fearing folks do honest work while reflecting the nation’s core values. But since Trump won the presidency, that friction has only intensified as the media descends on Red States trying in vain to figure out why they voted for him in such overwhelming majorities. The New York Times has been especially exasperating in this regard, devoting a series of chin-stroking profile pieces on small towns, studying their denizens as if they were exotic animals or extra-terrestrials. Articles like these tend to do the opposite of what they propose: Rather than illuminating the nuances of the Midwest, they flatten them, perpetuating stereotypes and reinforcing biases.

Thank god, then, for Monrovia, Indiana, the great new documentary from master American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. As its title suggest, the movie takes an immersive look at a small town whose population is currently less than 1,500. Wiseman, who turns 89 on January 1, works in the same fascinating, patient style that he has for the last 50 years. His documentaries (often devoted to institutions and places of work) don’t feature on-camera interviews — instead, he sits back and quietly chronicles what occurs, offering a sense of an ecosystem rather than fleshing out individuals within the community.

For those unfamiliar with Wiseman’s approach, Monrovia, Indiana might be jarring, but it’s especially instructive when trying to create a counter-narrative to this notion of a “real America,” or even worse, “Trump’s America.” Those watching Monrovia, Indiana hoping for some authoritative portrait of a region of the country will be disappointed: Wiseman is too smart and modest to pretend that any one film can be a definitive snapshot.

And yet, the documentary, which was filmed over the course of 10 weeks in the summer of 2017, ends up telling us quite a lot about this community. Your takeaways, however, may vary: We see gun shops, diners, schools and farms, but Wiseman resists any sort of heavy-handed commentary or narrative arc. You the viewer bring your own impressions to the work, while Wiseman keeps his own feelings to himself — although, as he tells MEL, because he edits his movies, each of his choices is informed by his opinions about what we see (and what we don’t see).

What’s most apparent about Monrovia, Indianawhich comes to New York on Friday before expanding across the country, is that there aren’t many people of color in Monrovia — but, also, remarkably, there’s no Trump conversation, or even a MAGA hat. That’s not because Wiseman cut all those instances out. “Nobody mentioned Trump while I was there,” he says, “which I found extraordinary, actually. And I don’t think it was because I was an outsider or because I was making a film. I think people, however they voted, they voted.”

Why they would vote for Trump — and why they wouldn’t bring up the president around him — are questions Wiseman resists answering during our interview. Speaking by phone on a park bench in Paris, he often swats away any opportunity to speculate on what Monrovia, Indiana is “about” or what his film “means.”

“I genuinely feel if I could summarize the movie in 25 words or less, I shouldn’t make the movie,” Wiseman says at one point. Nonetheless, he discussed what drew him to devoting an entire film to a small town, what we get wrong by using terms like “Trump’s America” and why documentarians should be fair but not impartial. He also explains how, at 88, he’s working harder than he ever has.

Was your initial interest simply in making a film about a small town?
I wanted to do a movie in the Middle West, and the only movie I’ve done in the Middle West is Public Housing [in Chicago], which is different from a lot of life in the Middle West. I had made movies in 17 states, but except for the Chicago project, I hadn’t done anything in the Midwest. So that was a motivation.

Plus, I’m interested in small-town life. I’ve made other movies about small-town life, Belfast, Maine and Aspen, and in a sense, the movie I made about the [Panama] Canal Zone is a movie about a small town. The Deaf and Blind movies were shot in a very small town in Alabama, but the town isn’t the subject. Small towns, certainly in the 19th century, were thought to be the backbone of American life. And even now, there are 23,000 of them, so I thought it would be an interesting subject.

Before anyone had seen Monrovia, Indiana, there was an assumption that the film might be an investigation into “Trump’s America.” Was that any part of your motivation?
I didn’t want to assume that just because I was making a movie about a small town — where 95 percent of the population was white — that it was necessarily a movie about “Trump’s America,” because I don’t know what that means, actually. I was interested in daily life in an all-white town in the Middle West. I didn’t even know that I was gonna discover any direct expression of an attitude toward Trump. And in fact, while I was there, I heard political conversation, but it was all political conversation about what was going on in Monrovia. I didn’t hear any political conversation about the external world — by that, I mean, the external world 20 miles away from Monrovia, let alone in Washington.

I mean, the town voted 65 percent for Trump. But what constitutes “Trump’s world” I don’t think has a simple answer. I think Trump’s world includes rich people and poor people. I was surprised to hear that Trump in some places had gotten 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Once you get beyond the cliché, I think it’s pretty hard to summarize, at least for me, what constitutes Trump’s world.

The New York Times has done a series of pieces about Trump voters in small towns, trying to figure out what makes them tick. Did those play any part in how you approached Monrovia?
I may have read some. I finished editing the movie in July — I read the Times, but I don’t remember those pieces, specifically. And I certainly wasn’t consciously reacting toward them in making the movie. I edited the movie in Paris, and while I keep somewhat up to date with American news in the sense that I read the Times and I listen to American political podcasts, I don’t know that I’m particularly influenced by that.

Whether it’s the Times or fiction films, we hold onto this cultural belief that, somehow, the Midwest represents the “real America.”
I think the “real America” is a comic idea. America is a very complicated country, and I would only laugh at myself if I made any attempt to define the “real America.” I’m not good at those vast cultural generalizations. I’m aware that people make them, but I try not to.

In a movie like this, there’s an expectation that there will be discussion of guns. And you do go into a gun shop.
I didn’t know what I was gonna find. I was extremely lucky that the owner of the gun store said I could [film] there — that was very generous of him. I think I’ve maybe been in one or two gun stores in my life, but not for any length of time. And so, I was interested to see what the conversation — what the chitchat — was like. I spent probably a total of two-and-a-half-hours in the gun store, and the sequence is probably seven or eight minutes [long].

How did you feel in there? What was the vibe like?
You saw that a lot of people like guns and know a lot about guns. They seem like ordinary folk, whatever that means. They weren’t clichés. They seemed interested in hunting deer, and they knew a lot about it. Obviously, the guys working in the store know a lot about guns and ammunition. Also, I was impressed by the wide variety of different models. My god, there were so many different kinds of rifles and handguns there. But depending on your point of view, you read different things into the sequence.

With a sequence like that, do you want to leave it open to the viewer?
Well, yeah. Obviously, I’m making a [decision about] the people that I show — and not only the people that I show but [also] what I show of the gun store. I show many of the guns that they sell. You see different kinds of handguns — you see different kinds of rifles. You hear people talking about using them — you hear people talking about shooting deer. But you also hear them talking about baseball — or how a common friend is in the hospital with a gall bladder operation.

It’s too simpleminded to make it a pro-gun or an anti-gun sequence. “This is what happens in a gun store.” I think I provide enough information in the sequence that you can make up your own mind about it.

Mortality is mentioned a decent amount in Monrovia, and the film ends with a funeral. I wondered if, in a way, you’re also exploring the death of a part of America — or of a particular way of life.
That’s the kind of cultural generalization I’d resist making, because I just don’t know. Someone to make that kind of generalization would have to know a lot more about small-town life in America than I do. It’s a reasonable inference from the film if you know something more than I do about small-town life and what’s happening to it. I’ve read the statistic that the number of small towns is going down, but again, I have no interest in making that generalization. Basically, it would be uninformed.

You’re not interested in your films being “definitive” snapshots.
Yeah, of course, it’s [just] my impression. Anybody that tells you they’re doing the definitive work should be greeted with a laugh.

That’s a refreshingly humble way to go about making documentaries. You’re just collecting this information and trying to construct some narrative regarding how you saw the experience of what you filmed.
That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m trying to construct a dramatic narrative — in this case, out of the experience in being in Monrovia for 10 weeks and accumulating during that 120 hours of [footage]. My job as an editor is to construct a dramatic narrative out of that, which from my point of view is a report on what I learned — and what I thought about as a consequence of the experience of being there and studying the material.

In a movie like Ex Libris or At Berkeley, a viewer might presume that, politically, you’re closely aligned with your subjects. With Monrovia, we might conclude that you’re not. Do you have to fight that bias? Do you feel that you need to be fair and impartial?
Fair? Yes. Impartial? I don’t know. “Fair” is at least consistent with the total subjectivity of the whole experience. “Impartial” is “On the one hand this, and the other hand that,” which I don’t do.

I genuinely think that the movie represents what I learned. Sometimes somebody asks me, “What the movie’s about?” Somebody once asked me after a screening of Welfare — which is a little more than three hours — what it was about, and I said, “It was about three hours and 10 minutes.”

Is it difficult to talk about your movies? Basically, you want them to speak for themselves and you don’t want to explain them?
Yeah, that’s right. In editing the movie — before the movie’s finished — I have to explain to myself why I use each sequence that I use, and what each sequence is about, and why it’s placed in the order that it’s arranged. If I can’t do that, then I think there’s a problem. On the other hand, I don’t do that for anybody but myself. I don’t think it’s my job to explain the movie. If the movie works, somebody can figure out why I’ve made the choices that I’ve made.

When you bring your films to festivals, do audiences tell you things about your movies you didn’t realize? Have you learned anything about Monrovia from viewers?
Not yet. And that’s a polite answer.

You spent 10 weeks in a small town. Did you feel like people got to know you? And what’s that feeling like while you’re filming them?
It’s friendly. For instance, there are a couple of sequences in the film where some of the older farmers sit around the table at one of the two restaurants — I got to know them. I saw a lot of them because it was necessary to shoot a lot to get the sequences that I have. And sometimes, I’d come into the restaurant, not to shoot, but to get some scrambled eggs or something. They’d come over and sit at the table and have a cup of coffee, or I’d go over and have my scrambled eggs at their table.

They were extremely friendly, but not especially curious. It’s the ideal situation — but that’s usually the situation, because I don’t think I’ve been in the situation where people’s curiosity has interfered with the filming.

You have this great ability to capture these intimate conversations between people. Does that take time to build up trust?
People don’t mind being filmed, and it’s very rare that anybody acts for the camera. And it’s very rare that anybody says no. I don’t know what the explanation for that is — I have some ideas, but I don’t have a definitive explanation.

I’d love to hear what those ideas are.
Well, some of it’s vanity. Some of it’s indifference. Some of it’s people like the idea that someone’s sufficiently interested in their lives to want to film them. Those are three possible explanations. There may be others that I haven’t thought of, but those are three that have occurred to me.

After making so many films, do you have a list of ones you still want to do — on certain subjects or institutions?
I have a running list that I keep in my head of maybe four or five subjects. And sometimes I go to that list when I’m looking for a new subject, and sometimes something else pops into my head by chance — or I have an experience that suggests something else, which takes precedence. I always have a list of possibilities — I like to have a movie to work on.

I think most of us like knowing that there’s another thing waiting for us — there are other ideas that are still out there.
That’s right. You haven’t dried up.

Do you ever finish a film and think, “This one is really great—I should quit right now”?
No, because I like working. And I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t work. I’m not exactly a youngster, although I think I am. Working is very important to me. I think I’m working harder now than I did 25 years ago, because it keeps my mind off the Grim Reaper. The best thing I can do for myself at my age is to be completely absorbed in my work. And I’m lucky: My health is okay, and I can still do it. I have no idea how long it will last.

Were you always this energetic?
I didn’t make my first movie until I was 36 — I drifted around not doing anything I particularly liked, and I wasn’t very happy doing what I was doing. I started to work a little bit in movies when I was 30, but I didn’t make Titicut Follies until I was 36. Since then, I’ve been acting like I was shot from a gun because I found something I liked. It’s not work for me — it’s a passion. I have the same enthusiasm about doing it as I did 50 years ago.