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Film Review: Monrovia, Indiana

The perfect film to watch this gloomy January

Film Review: <i>Monrovia, Indiana</i>

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.

Hot Docs in review: three documentaries worth your while

These films explore humanity from all angles

Hot Docs in review: three documentaries worth your while

As free daytime screenings were available to all students, catching a film at the Canadian International Documentary Festival — better known as Hot Docs — was a great way for many to start off the summer. Now that the festival has ended, some of the titles have had a lasting impact on viewers. Here are three films to look out for.

At Home in the World

Among the various subjects that Hot Docs films delve into, a popular theme this year was immigration and refugees which has been prominent  in the media over the past year. At Home in the World, which had its Canadian premiere at the festival, offered an intimate perspective into the everyday lives of refugee children at a Red Cross school in Denmark.

The hour-long film was a project by award-winning director Andreas Koefoed. Told primarily through interviews, it captured the personal struggles of several refugee children and their parents as they grappled with nightmares and mental illnesses, all while learning a new language, adjusting to a new culture, and fighting for residency at the risk of being separated from loved ones.

“In the public debate, people on the run are often reduced into numbers or stereotypes,” writes Koefoed in the director’s notes on the film’s website. “It is easy to forget that they are normal human beings, who happen to be in a very difficult situation. This is my reason for telling this story: I want to tell the story of the refugee children, who often face the same everyday struggles, thoughts and emotions as any other child, except for the fact that they have experienced a life with various atrocities very close to home.”

Audrie & Daisy/Courtesy of Audrie & Daisy

Audrie & Daisy/Courtesy of Audrie & Daisy

Audrie & Daisy

Another emotional film that spoke to a pervasive issue was Audrie & Daisy, directed Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen. The film told the story of two teenage survivors of filmed sexual assaults, Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman, their community’s reaction, and the legal ramifications that followed. The heart-wrenching interviews with the survivors and their families drew tears from the crowd, while the scathing and slut-shaming remarks of the police and the public incited exclamations of outrage. Audrie & Daisy is a must-watch for everyone, as it presented powerful insight into a relevant issue.

“Unfortunately, the story of drunken high school parties and sexual assault is not new,” say Shenk and Cohen in their statement on the film. “But today, the events of the night are recorded on smartphones and disseminated to an entire community and, sometimes, the nation… While the subject matter is dark, we are inspired by these stories to make a film that captures these truths but can also help audiences digest the complexities of the world teenagers live in today.”

Daisy Coleman, Daisy’s mother, and Delaney Henderson — another sexual assault survivor featured in the film — were present at the screenings to answer questions and to speak with the audience in the lobby. Audrie & Daisy had its international premiere at Hot Docs after screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury prize.

Life, Animated/Courtesy of Life, Animated

Life, Animated/Courtesy of Life, Animated

Life, Animated

On a more lighthearted, but no less moving, note was Life, Animated, directed by Roger Ross Williams. It tells the story of Owen Suskind, a 23-year-old autistic man, and his journey to understand the world through Disney animations.

Owen’s story bears all the hallmarks of a good Disney film itself: empowerment, joy, hilarity, heartbreak and struggle. Interviews were creatively presented alongside clips from Disney films, animations of Owen’s life, and animations of Owen’s imaginary world. As the film explains, Disney movies remain constant when everything else changes, a reason why many autistic people find comfort and meaning in them.

In addition to being a touching story about using our different passions to navigate reality, Life, Animated also offers a glimpse into the life of an autistic child growing up and the effects that it has had on his family. The film debunked several myths about the condition, such as how autistic people will never able to hold jobs, have good romantic relationships, or live independently.

Life, Animated also had its international premiere at Hot Docs after screening at the Sundance Film Festival, where Williams won the Sundance Directing Award: U.S. Documentary. The film was based on the bestselling book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind, Owen’s father. The film will be released in North American theatres later in 2016.

Hot Docs Review: Weiner sticks out

A look into one of Washington's stranger sex scandals, this doc makes for a weird yet wonderful watch

Hot Docs Review: <em>Weiner</em> sticks out

There wasn’t an empty seat in the Bloor Hot Docs cinema for the Friday evening screening of Weiner, directed by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman. It was a full house for good reason; this feature-length documentary is at once informative and hilarious, fascinating and cringe-worthy. It’s much like watching Icarus dare to touch the sun; you know exactly what the outcome will be, but you can’t look away.

Many will remember the scandals of former democratic house representative Anthony Weiner, who resigned from congress after photos of his genitals, which he had reportedly sent to several women, were leaked. The film catches up with Weiner a couple years later, in 2013, as he decides to run for mayor of New York City, and hopes voters will give him a second chance.

Perhaps surprisingly, they do. Weiner begins his campaign from a position of strength — people seem to love his ideas and fighting spirit and have forgiven his past errors. We all know what it’s like to have a slip-up on social media. Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s top aide, seem to have recovered from past tribulations. But then it happens again: more photos leak, more women come forward and this time, New Yorkers and the media aren’t so ready to forgive.

The characters of this drama provide ample entertainment, not only because of the problems they face, but also because of their reactions to them.

One of the most difficult aspects of documentary filmmaking is the problem of accessing the doc’s subjects. The incredible thing about Weiner is that, for some reason, Weiner agreed to let Steinberg and Kriegman behind the scenes of his mayoral race and into his personal life without censoring anything. The access given to the directors is so astounding that even Kriegman is driven to ask Weiner why they have been allowed into his life — a question which even Weiner doesn’t seem to know the answer to.  

Weiner is a fascinating case study of the media’s ability to shape public opinion and infiltrate the privacy of political figures. It touches on Weiner’s narcissistic nature — perhaps a commentary on political ambition generally — but the protagonist is never unnecessarily demonized nor celebrated.

Weiner offers a sober look at Weiner’s fall from grace, not once, but twice, and moves at a fast pace. The characters of this drama provide ample entertainment, not only because of the problems they face, but also because of their reactions to them, which are often equally as cringeworthy as the events that catalyzed the scandals.

Ultimately, the film is about Weiner and his wiener, but it’s also much more than that. Weiner is an intense, insightful, and incredibly entertaining look at one of the most talked-about political scandals of our time.  

Hot Docs Review: Louis Theroux shows no mercy in My Scientology Movie

The film is a look into the notoriously secretive Church of Scientology

Hot Docs Review: Louis Theroux shows no mercy in <em>My Scientology Movie</em>

Last year saw the release of two unique documentary films about Scientology: HBO’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and, more recently, Louis Theroux and John Dower’s My Scientology Movie. Both attempt to understand and explain the controversial religious movement, which was created by prolific science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. The two films critique the religion through interviews with ex-members that expose the alleged malpractices of the organization to the public. My Scientology Movie — which only received a limited release last October in England — is now playing at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.

As a scathing indictment of the methods and customs of the Church of Scientology and its leader, David Miscavige, My Scientology Movie uses investigative journalism to recreate alleged events. Theroux’s attempts at accessing Scientology facilities and producing interviews with active members were almost immediately met with hostility from the organization. Early into filming, the crew was put under surveillance by the church’s investigators, leading to many confrontations that are featured in the film.

Though technically directed by Dower, this film has the fingerprints of Theroux, as he seems to be the driving narrative voice. Like much of his past work for BBC, My Scientology Movie uses humour to underscore serious assertions and arguments. The absurdity of a Scientology member asking the straight-faced Theroux if he understands what the word ‘road’ means when he is caught filming near a compound on a ‘private’ road — later proved to be public — is used to demonstrate the extent of the Church’s distrust.

At just over 90 minutes, the film is fairly short; that, combined with its slick editing, make it easy to digest. Like many other Scientology documentaries, it spends the majority of the time condemning the religion, without thoroughly showcasing the other side of the argument. This is hardly the fault of the filmmakers though and seems to be caused by the lack of cooperation from the secretive Church of Scientology.

Though at times meandering, the story behind My Scientology Movie remains consistently engaging. With no clear beginning or conventionally-satisfying conclusion, the film jumps right into its argument from the start; this sudden thrust into the narrative may leave viewers with little knowledge of the subject feeling left behind. It perhaps could have benefited from more backstory on the religion and its main tenants.

Despite this relatively minor shortcoming, My Scientology Movie provides thought-provoking insight into the Church of Scientology. It should not be missed by those interested in the subject matter or those who simply enjoy a solid documentary. The film is playing at multiple locations in Toronto until May 8.

HotDocs 2016 on now until May 8

Over 200 works featured by filmmakers from Canada and around the world

HotDocs 2016 on now until May 8

Back to greet you at the finish line of another school year is the Canadian International Documentary Festival — better known as Hot Docs. The festival has been hosted in Toronto annually since 1993. It is the largest North American festival for documentary films, drawing over 200,000 spectators. This year’s festival, running from April 28 to May 8, will showcase 232 documentaries from 51 countries. The films were selected from 2,735 submissions to the festival.

While regular festival tickets cost $17 per film, students with a valid ID can watch all screenings before 5:00 pm for free. The majority of the 13 venues are located in the downtown core, including three U of T locations: Isabel Bader Theatre, Innis Town Hall, and Hart House Theatre.

Documentary subjects range from food, to love and relationships, to issues of immigration, multiculturalism, and refugees. The films — many of which are premiering at Hot Docs — are also grouped under categories such as the ‘Canadian Spectrum,’ the ‘International Spectrum,’ or ‘DocX’, which is an interdisciplinary section of non-traditional documentaries that combine cinema with music, technology, or other live performances.

A good place to start when searching for festival screenings could be the ‘Special Presentations’ and the ‘Highlights’ categories. Widely anticipated films include the playful League of Exotique Dancers, which explores the lives of vintage burlesque dancers; Ants on a Shrimp, a culinary feature of renowned chef René Redzepi; and the “part riveting biopic, part legal thriller,” O.J. Made in America. Many of the documentaries delve into important topics such as gender and sexuality, animal rights, disability, and ecology and the environment. Notable films that might be of interest include Audrie & Daisy, the “heartrending stories” of two victims of a filmed sexual assault; Life, Animated, which portrays how Disney animations helped an autistic boy understand the world around him; and The Age of Consequences, which looks at climate change through a national security lens.

For those who are not typically documentary fans, this festival could be just the thing to change your perspective. With such a wide selection of films available at Hot Docs, every person is sure to find something of interest.