'My movies are more novelistic than journalistic,' doc legend tells Nonfictionfilm.com
In Tuesday's midterm election, Indiana voters tossed out an incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator, installing Republican Mike Braun in his place.
That result will come as no surprise to people who have seen Fred Wiseman's latest documentary, Monrovia, Indiana. The filmmaker spent weeks in the small town (pop. 1,000) in the central part of the Hoosier State, the kind of rural, pro-Trump, and overwhelmingly white bastion that contributed to Braun's victory. The director's focus is not on the politics of the place per se, but on the rhythms of life in a community where tradition and Christian faith are deeply rooted.
It's the 43rd feature documentary made by Wiseman, whose other films have taken him inside the Paris Opera Ballet, a Benedictine monastery in Michigan, a fishing village in Maine, the New York Public Library and a high school in Philadelphia, among many other destinations.
Monrovia, Indiana is now playing in LA and in multiple locations in Indiana, including Indianapolis. It opens in Bloomington, Indiana on Friday.
Matt Carey: It strikes me that there's an irony about interviewing you because there are no interviews in Monrovia, Indiana.
Fred Wiseman: There haven't been any interviews in any of my films.
MC: I was going to say. I don't believe there have been any that I recall.
FW: No, that's right.
MC: Why is that key to your process?
FW: I think some people make great interview movies -- it's just not a style that I'm interested in. I think my movies are more novelistic than journalistic and I think when my films work, they work because you feel you're present in the sequence that you're watching and hearing. I like the sense of immediacy that it gives.
MC: I'm curious about why, having covered institutions around the world -- in Paris and New York and elsewhere -- you decided to train your focus on a small town in Indiana.
FW: Because I've made movies in 17 States, but I have never made one in the Middle West, with the exception of a public housing film in Chicago. I thought it would be interesting to make a movie about a small town in the Middle West. A friend of mine told me about Monrovia and I visited it and liked what I saw and started to make the movie there. I didn't visit any other place that seemed to work for me.
MC: How do you decide what you want to film?
FW: I try to get a sense of daily life, so I visit the schools and the businesses and farms. I try to go to the places that represent the occupations of a lot of the residents. Basically I film whatever interests me in the context of thinking that it's connected to the daily life of the town, like the restaurants, the school, the barber shop, the supermarket.
MC: You filmed food preparation in the diner, meat cutting in the supermarket,
a wedding and a funeral. It has a touch of the feel of Our Town by Thornton Wilder somehow.
FW: I'm certainly familiar with that. [My film is] a bit less didactic.
MC: Very much so. But it has a cradle-to-grave kind of feeling about it. I know that it's not a film in which you're expressing judgment overtly but did you ever feel that the place was dying?
FW: No, I don't know how to make that kind of a judgment. But I certainly didn't have the sense that the place was dying.
MC: It's interesting because there are these opportunities for growth in the town and yet as we see, particularly with one member of the town council, there is deep ambivalence about that.
FW: Well, she wasn't interested. That's right. And the issue wasn't resolved when I was there. But what I was interested in presenting was the issue, not the resolution of it.
MC: What stood out to me was the degree to which religion, and in particular Christianity, just suffuses life there.
FW: It does suffuse life there. People are very religious.
MC: Tradition is so much a part of daily life. There's the scene with a high school teacher going on at extraordinary length about the exploits of former basketball players. It's like, my goodness, he's quite the historian of local athletic achievement. As you're listening to things like that, how are you taking it in? Are you thinking, 'Wow, I can't believe this guy is so preoccupied with this' or you like, 'Oh, this is interesting, this will make a good scene for the film'?
FW: More the latter.
MC: You're not sort of chuckling to yourself or anything like that?
FW: I never try to mock anybody. I think there are some funny things in the movie. But I didn't create the humor. The humor is there and I recognized it. Because if I mock people I only make a fool of myself.
MC: Many people refer to Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, as 'flyover territory' that is not worth our attention. What do people miss if they adopt that attitude? I mean, this is a substantial way of life for many, many people.
FW: That's right, that's right. These people shouldn't be condescended to.
MC: Reading some commentaries on the film, I think there's a desire on the part of some critics to see you make a more explicit political statement in the movie, or reference somehow that this is a Trump red state.
FW: I don't like to make obvious films. That's the film they want to make. That’s not the film I want to make.
MC: Trump has been criticized for undermining our democratic traditions, so it's perhaps ironic that in the film we see democratic institutions functioning, in the form of the town council.
FW: You see democracy at work at the local level, that's absolutely correct. It doesn't mean that Trump isn't making a serious effort to erode our democratic traditions. The question is to what extent has he succeeded and will he continue to be able to do it?
MC: These democratic processes are embedded deeply enough, as we see on display there, that hopefully they can endure.
FW: Hopefully they can endure, that's right.
MC: The film played at the Venice Film Festival. Were you there for that?
FW: Yes, I was. That was the world premiere actually. It was very well received there, I'm happy to say.
MC: I guess this reflects my prejudice -- even though I am from a similar area to Monrovia -- but I could not imagine what the Italians or the world press would make of these people. Like, are we the same species? Did you get those kinds of reactions at all?
FW: To some extent, yeah. But of course that's the way the Monrovians would feel about a film about New York.
MC: What did people in Monrovia make of you -- this gentleman showing up with a camera and being terribly interested in their town? I can imagine that doesn't happen very often.
FW: They were pleased that somebody was sufficiently interested in them to make a movie about them. They were very, very cooperative.
MC: It's pretty amazing everything that they showed you, from the veterinary office to the Masonic lodge rite. Did you have any difficulties securing any permissions or agreements or releases?
FW: No, with one exception, everybody participated and the one exception was because it was a man who had a big collection of old tractors and cars and he didn't want attention drawn to them. But people were extremely nice and helpful.
MC: Have people in Monrovia seen the film?
FW: Yes, they saw it. I showed it to them at the end of August and they seemed to like it. About five or 600 people came to see it.
MC: That’s half the town. They clearly didn't feel like you were sending them up in some way or mocking them?
FW: No, not at all. And I don't think I do.
MC: No, I don't think you do either. A final question. We're sort of coming apart a little bit as a country with this extreme political polarization. We don't talk to each other, we don't respect each other's viewpoints, we don't want to know each other, we want to dismiss each other. Do you think your film can in some sense help advance our cohesion?
FW: I think if people want to effect change, they should go into politics.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.