Frederick Wiseman has been making documentaries since the 60’s. He’s been to mental institutions, schools, laboratories, and museums. He’s explored our courts, our military, our police force, and our welfare system. He’s been dissecting the inner workings of large institutions and exposing the nature of socioeconomic distress for half a century. He’s documented the cultural and political landscape in America through a lens of compassion and has crafted his message by merely allowing his subjects to speak for themselves. It is appropriate then that in 2018, Wiseman traveled to Trump country.
Wiseman has not tried to make his political views a secret, and there is no doubt that he is left of center. That said, he does not approach this subject with disdain or even directness. He has confirmed the obvious in interviews: the choice to go to a small rural community at this point in US history was no coincidence. However, he did not take his camera to Monrovia to expose any unpleasantness and he doesn’t approach his subject with the hostility of someone like Michael Moore. Instead, Monrovia, Indiana steeps itself in the most intimate functions of the town.
There is an extended section of the film that features a local high school teacher giving a lecture on the history of high school sports in Monrovia. He describes in detail the different successful athletes that claim the town and connects Monrovia to a web of college championships. It’s unclear what curriculum calls for this sort of a lesson, but Wiseman makes it apparent that in a town like Monrovia, local pride is as important as any other part of one’s education. The film also spends a significant amount of time informing the audience about the politics of the town. No they aren’t talking about immigration or healthcare or trade policy. They’re discussing zoning and the politics surrounding a large housing developer who has put up a compact community of new homes in the area. Citizens express their concerns over everything from expedited fire safety measures to broader worries about the way that these new influxes of citizens will shift the town’s culture. As a small town with little non-agricultural industry, they’re unsure of how to support new citizens with the adequate resources to build a functional community.
Amidst these broad political discussions, Wiseman entertains us with the lives of the citizens of Monrovia. A group of older men sit in the local restaurant seem to spend every day having long discussions about their lives and the lives of all the families with whom they’re mutually acquainted. We immediately get the sense that everybody in town knows everybody else. Wiseman takes us to a local mattress sale that is trying to raise money for the public schools. I can honestly say that I have not experienced a more animated movie theater audience at any 2018 film than when we were listening to a mattress salesman describe the way that his product would repel sweat and skin cells.
We are also frequently reminded throughout the film that Monrovia is gun country. While Wiseman is certainly trying to comment on the larger culture and politics of this sort of community, the gun debate is the one topic of national political conversation that is broached directly in the film, and it is broached with great frequency. Wiseman spends some time in a local gun shop, dwelling in the locals’ enjoyment of guns as a hobby and even a collector’s item. He explores the anti-gun regulation paraphernalia that seems to be its own industry in Monrovia. There is little doubt based on the content of the film that Monrovia is filled to the brim with single issue voters, but Wiseman never approaches these individuals with a mean spirit or a condescending tone.
With this extremely personal look at a marginalized rural community, Wiseman crafted one of the most engaging and interesting movies of 2018. In a year that produced a wealth of fascinating political content, Monrovia, Indiana provides an insightful and sympathetic look at the “other” side. No, Wiseman is not discussing hot button issues, interviewing politicians, or filming at rallies. Monrovia, Indiana offers the sense that in many rural communities, the citizens simply have bigger fish to fry. When every citizen has enough voice and insight to directly impact his or her community, the voices in Washington D.C. feel a bit farther away. Wiseman neither confronts nor embraces these views, but he observes and documents them with great care.