Monrovia is a town in Morgan County, Indiana, with a population of less than 2,000 people. Morgan County is 97.4 per cent white and has voted Republican every year since 2004. In 2016, 75.3 per cent voted for Donald Trump. This town of Monrovia is the subject of the latest documentary directed by Frederick Wiseman.
Having directed films for the past half century, 89-year-old Wiseman continues formally in his usual style. As with last year’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, there are no instances of narration, no interviews, and no title cards to guide the viewer. Only footage. This narrative sparseness disdains the air of educational or instructive material that many documentaries assume and encourages viewers to pass their own judgments. More significantly, it masks any element of design.
Scenes flow into one another like eddies of thought, and one can easily forget that Wiseman and his crew are present on the scene at all; the action appears so unselfconscious and unmediated. Yet they are present, not only in Monrovia but in the editing room, taking care about what the audience sees and when. What they choose to present us with is crucial to the documentary as a political work.
Early on, we peek into a board room where someone is making a speech to the city council — no one’s name or job title is given. The man stresses the town’s need to develop, and recalls that the last community where he worked saw its population rise from fewer than 10,000 to over 40,000 people. He promises that this won’t happen to Monrovia. “Let’s hope not,” a woman at the table interrupts, gravely. Later, at a separate meeting, a new resident pleads that the fire hydrant outside his house doesn’t work, and thus he has no fire protection.
The same woman returns, with barely withheld condescension, saying that many people moving in from “the city” might be surprised to find that they don’t enjoy the same level of infrastructure in “the country” as they did back home. Whether or not burning to death is the sort of everyday woodland hardship that city folks are too spoiled to appreciate is only part of the issue. The complainant, who sports a baseball cap emblazoned with a bald eagle under stars and stripes, seems indistinguishable from the locals, but, as he himself confesses, he is not a native Monrovian. He grew up in Indianapolis. And he has purchased a house in a neighbourhood recently added to the town, which many of the locals openly resent. For some, a population of 1,000 is already too much.
Near the end of the film, we see the same councillor at Monrovia’s yearly street festival, manning the booth of the Morgan County Republican Party. Her being there comes as no shock. But this is the first and only explicit reference to a political party in the film, reminding us of how precisely these details are arranged. Had she been introduced by her party alignment, or given a cutaway scene to discuss politics, we would have regarded her differently and listened with different ears to what she said. She would have been a Republican — someone about whom each of us already has an opinion — rather than a Monrovian — someone few of us even knew existed.
Of course, the film pays a visit to the local firearms vendor, on whose walls hang slogans unsurprising to anyone who has driven through rural North America: “I’m all for gun control… I always use both hands!” or “Today, millions of gun owners killed no one.” “Work hard! Fifty people on welfare are counting on you!” is a cheery one that pops up on a t-shirt. Enthusiasts browse quietly; one customer chats with the proprietor about military-grade weaponry. Soon, their conversation turns to a mutual friend, who’s in hospital having his gallbladder removed. One reassures the other that the procedure will be beneficial and safe, as his wife has recently undergone it; nonetheless, both men quiet.
Behind them are the sounds of another customer, hoisting up various assault rifles one by one, and raising them to eye level to test their weight in her hands. For me, the scene is a moment of universality. I was raised in an Ontario village half the size of Monrovia, and this scene, like many others, could have taken place there exactly as it does here. The guns back home looked rather more like tools for hunting deer, and less like something that could be wielded to take down Optimus Prime, but that’s really the only difference.
When all this is recognizable to a Canadian, there’s an argument to be made that, in fact, it is context only that makes this a political film. The film itself says nothing of its reasoning or aim. That’s left to the promotional material. According to the website of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Monrovia, Indiana is a “study of small-town Midwesterners who tilted the 2016 US election,” after which “coastal journalists had to reckon with being out of touch with red-state America.” Though TIFF acknowledges that Wiseman “isn’t tackling politics overtly,” the marketing implies for the film an entirely political purpose.
Why else would it be made in 2018, and why else would we be watching it? ‘We’ being most likely the left-leaning, the urban, and the middle-class. Not a single “Make America Great Again” hat is shown. Instead, we see a young couple’s wedding vows, a pig farmer showing livestock to his daughter, a country band playing to almost no one, and a veterinarian painstakingly amputating the tail of a dog. Yet it remains unavoidable that these are people who we are interested in precisely for their Republicanism. Context prevents this film from being about Monrovia at all, and renders its people metonymic for the countless small communities that wield enormous power over American politics, and who may want, above all else, to be left alone.
Over the past years, much has been made of journalistic efforts to correct that lapse in cultural awareness — to be no longer “out of touch” — and the merits of such a pursuit are seen from interviews with average Trump supporters to a New York Times profile of the day-to-day life of a neo-Nazi. This is the context in which Monrovia, Indiana arrives, after many have criticized the amount of coverage given to the voices of political enemies.
Some fear the results of “normalizing” and “humanizing” people who hold, or tolerate, evil ideas, as though they weren’t normal and human before liberal journalists discovered them. What happens if one begins not with the ideas and allegiances, but with that unevenly bestowed humanity? What if one presents a view of people both like and unlike ourselves, and refuses to tell us how they vote? Or only tells us after we’ve been forced to confront them as political unknowns?
A film like Wiseman’s offers an invaluable counter to one of the most troublingly persistent delusions in popular discourse, which is that one’s ideology is inevitable. Many of us on the left take comfort in telling ourselves that our politics are the correct ones because they naturally arise from marginalized people — that only our opponents can be privileged enough to choose their ideas and choose not to care about others because politics don’t affect them. And those marginalized people, being the handy monolith that they are, could never possibly disagree, or be split on an issue themselves — how rude of them that would be, when we’re trying to help.
This idea becomes less simple as soon as one takes a step into society’s actual margins, among the working class, those without a university education, and those who live at the borders of the map. In America, a lower percentage of rural high-school graduates attend university than among urban and suburban graduates of all ethnicities, at every income level.
For most people watching Monrovia, Indiana at TIFF, towns like Monrovia are marginal. Why else call it a “study” of rural conservatives, as though they were the subjects of an anthropological expedition? If they didn’t constitute a political ‘other,’ and weren’t partially responsible for the United States’ current regime, they would not have been deemed worthy of a documentary.
Leaving the theatre, one has no idea just how much footage Wiseman shot or what he excluded from the final cut, but his film’s singular contribution is in how the selection of details refuses to approach these subjects as the ‘other.’ It offers them neither defence nor judgment nor admiration nor pity, though each audience member may experience any of these reactions.
Monrovia, Indiana is not a film that makes its intentions clear. It is an exploratory work by an already learned man taking curious steps, not into the uncharted, but into the oft-forgotten reaches of his own country. For that alone, it is worth seeing, if you’d rather not make the trip there yourself.