At age 88, master documentarian Frederick Wiseman (In Jackson Heights, La Danse, Public Housing) continues his breakneck pace of putting out a new, epic-length documentary film about every year or two. Following up one of his finest works, last year’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, the director moves from New York City into the American heartland with Monrovia, Indiana, marking the first time in his 50-year career that he has shot a film in the region.
Wiseman’s documentaries are easy to recognize by their approach and editing (also done by him): he moves into a community or institution, establishes a presence there, and waits several weeks before introducing cameras into the equation. With no narration or title cards, he simply ingrains himself into the flow and processes of whatever subject he’s capturing. In the case of the small town of Monrovia (with a population that tops out at just over 1,000), that includes city planning committee meetings, Freemason and Lions Club gatherings, local restaurants, livestock and produce farms, weddings, funerals, barber shops and hair salons, and, of course, the local gun store—any place where citizens are interacting, communicating and giving us a sense of what is going on in the community. The subjects are never asked questions by the filmmaker, and they never address the camera directly. Wiseman is about capturing life, without judgment (he leaves that to the viewer), and we can’t help but get caught up in the small dramas of everyday life.
That being said, the stakes on display in Monrovia, Indiana, are fairly low; having his cameras float down the aisles of the local grocery store seems a little less interesting than other subjects he’s captured over five decades. And since most of his movies run somewhere between two-and-a-half to three hours, a few of the elements he includes here feel like filler. Still, listening in on conversations between elderly friends, catching up about who’s dead and who’s alive, or one man relating details of his post-operation physical rehab is all deeply compelling and richly moving as a document of small town living.
Although politics (other than local matters) is almost never mentioned in the film, it’s fairly easy to guess who many of these people voted for in 2016 based on the somewhat tasteless t-shirts on sale at one town festival. And the concept of separating church and state is basically non-existent in Monrovia, as nearly every gathering of three or more people for any purpose begins with a prayer. But Wiseman didn’t select a small Midwest location for no reason; these are the people that we’re being told federal politics ignores. These are farmers and middle-class Americans who were sold a bill of goods by our current president and are still waiting to see if he’s going to deliver. As all Wiseman’s films are, this one is a fascinating exercise in empathy in a time when we can use all the understanding of other people that we can muster.
The film opens today for weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.