Sophisticates living on the coasts may think of the Midwest as flyover territory unworthy of their attention, filled with tedious “I” states—Iowa, Illinois, Indiana. But veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman would disagree. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based director flew not over but into the heartland for his latest film, Monrovia, Indiana.
In his signature observational style Wiseman captures the rhythms and character of civic and community life in a town of 1,000 people.
“I’ve made movies in 17 states, but I never made one in the Middle West before, 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,” he tells Deadline. “A friend of mine told me about Monrovia and I visited it, liked what I saw, and started to make a movie there.”
He filmed on hog farms, in cornfields, at a Masonic lodge, Lions Club, high school, veterinary clinic, tattoo parlor, barbershop, restaurant, a baby shower, a wedding and more. The film contains moments of conversation between townspeople, including some old duffers at a diner who discuss a recent experience eating carrots.
“Diet food,” comments one man with a large stomach, “but I drink a lot of beer to wash it down.” Glancing at the man’s belly, a friend offers, “I was gonna say, I don’t think it worked.”
One thing you won’t find in the documentary are interviews.
“There haven’t been any interviews in any of my films,” Wiseman notes. “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.”
Wiseman, 88, has been making documentaries since the 1960s. He has taken viewers inside the walls of a mental hospital for the criminally insane, a Benedictine monastery, the Paris Opera Ballet, and more recently the New York Public Library, to name but a few locations, with an eye always trained on how institutions function. In Monrovia, Indiana he records as the town council chews over a housing development that would boost the local population, a prospect opposed by one wary council member.
“She wasn’t interested in that,” Wiseman recalls. “The issue wasn’t resolved when I was there. But what I was interested in presenting was the issue, not the resolution of it.”
If this sounds like a conservative place, it is. Monrovia is overwhelmingly white, nestled within a county that Donald Trump carried in 2016 with more than 75% of the vote. Wiseman shows the intrinsic role of Christian traditions in daily life (“People are very religious,” he states) but he doesn’t overtly address the politics hovering in the background. Some critics would have preferred he confront red state mentalities.
“That’s the film they want to make. That’s not the film I want to make,” he declares. “I don’t like to make obvious films.”
Monrovia, Indiana is now playing in Los Angeles and at multiple points in the Hoosier State, including South Bend and Indianapolis. It’s a contender for recognition this awards season, as has been the case with many of Wiseman’s films. Just don’t expect the filmmaker to mount a campaign on behalf of his documentary.
“I’m obviously quite happy if a movie gets an award,” he acknowledges, “but I don’t get involved in the politics of getting it.”
The film held its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September. But the people of Monrovia got an early peek at it.
“About five or 600 people came to see it,” he recalls, or roughly half the town. “They were pleased that somebody was sufficiently interested in them to make a movie about them.”
Some viewers may detect subtle editorial commentary embedded in scenes shot in a gun shop, the Red Barrel liquor store, and even a funeral service, where the most stirring eulogy a minister can make for a woman is that she was known for uttering the phrase, “My, my, my.”
But Wiseman insists it’s not his intention to deride the people of Monrovia.
“These people shouldn’t be condescended to,” he maintains, adding, “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.”