Monrovia, Indiana (2018) by Frederick Wiseman
Review by Lydia Creech
LYDIA: Ever since Wiseman came to my (graduate) alma mater for a film series showcasing his documentaries and a masterclass, I have been excited to follow his career. Not only does he keep picking subject matters close to my heart (I went to Bloomington, just south of Monrovia, for library school), but the way he approaches them is also surprising and insightful.
In his intro, he spoke of simply desiring to document a “small town” for his next project. This year at TIFF, there were several documentaries that dealt explicitly with current American politics and rise of Trump specifically, and I was wondering, for a small town in a county that voted 75% for Trump in 2016, if Wiseman would address that (and whether or not I wanted another film about it…).
However, it is not Wiseman’s way to be biased in favor of one point of view over another. The way he frames Monrovia is straightforward. He shows us the surrounding farm country and Main Street (the only street?) and all the buildings, and then moves inside each to show the workings. We sit in on town council meetings (lots of talk about a new housing development, and how that will change the town’s demographics…. hmmmm…..), or see how large farms are run, or listen to the regulars at the cafe gossip about their ailments. As always, he presents these things without judgement or commentary, leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions.
Some of the stuff he picks to show us (we should never forget that he edits down from hours and hours of raw footage) horrified me--an Evangelical wedding ceremony, a tail docking surgery at a veterinary clinic--but is very mundane and ordinary to the people who live in Monrovia. Other things you can tell Wiseman finds rather amusing--the squabbling councilmembers, the tacky, “humor” shirts on sale at the local fair (you can imagine the slogans on them), a mattress sale convention in the high school gym--and just by showcasing these things as worthy of documentary treatment, he makes them interesting.
I grew up in a small town (in Tennessee, but still), and so much of what went on in Monrovia felt familiar to me. I’m glad to have seen Wiseman turn his camera to the topic.