Monrovia, Indiana: Outsiders and Understanding

Image courtesy of Zipporah Films.

**** (out of 4)

Depictions of rural America frequently fall prey to two sorts of caricatures. On the one hand, films like Captain Fantastic portray non-urban environments as paradisiacal, suggesting that they embody a kind of emotional purity that you simply won’t find anywhere else. Meanwhile, ever since Donald Trump became president, many commentators have instead encouraged the notion that rural America is a haven for bigots, a backward part of the country that teems with rednecks and gun nuts.

In his latest documentary, Monrovia, Indiana, Frederick Wiseman repudiates both of these conceptions. Instead, through his depiction of everyday life in the titular town, he portrays rural America as a region that suffers from three particular afflictions – none of which have anything to do with Trump. First, rural America is a region that stifles individuality. Throughout the film, Wiseman juxtaposes shots of mass production – pigs being rounded up for slaughter, tractors being lined up for sale – with shots of crowds of townspeople who’re sitting in cafeterias, auditoriums, and other public places. The disturbing implication is that Monrovians are just like said pigs: doomed to live and die as indistinguishable components of a larger mass.

Image courtesy of Zipporah Films.

Lack of individuality aside, Wiseman’s rural America has also been decimated by death. At various points in Monrovia, the camera films Monrovians as they engage in conversation at bars, shops, and other places around town. What’s striking about these moments isn’t just the frequency with which people talk about illness – one person’s wife has gallstones, another’s has cancer, a third one’s has kidney problems, and so on. More tellingly, people discuss these problems with complete insouciance, as though they were merely engaging in small talk about next week’s weather. You get the impression that the town has been mired in a helplessly morbid state for ages, to the point that people have become inured to their own suffering.

Finally, we like to think of small towns as everyone-knows-everyone fonts of close relationships. But in reality, as Wiseman shows us, a sense of community is one of the many things that rural America utterly lacks. One of the film’s most telling scenes, for instance, depicts an awards ceremony at the local Masonic lodge. Far from being festive, however, the event turns out to be painfully depressing: a small group of elderly men stand in a large, empty room while a speaker stumbles over a cliché-ridden speech about God and honor. The takeaway from this – and the stilted weddings and funerals you go on to see – is that Monrovia’s communal gatherings have lost their emotional significance. Instead of coming together with a genuine desire to bond, people attend said gatherings from force of habit alone.

Image courtesy of Zipporah Films.

If all Monrovia did was offer this sort of sociological analysis, it’d already be well worth a watch. But the film ultimately also stands out for its self-aware attitude. Even as Wiseman reaches conclusions about Monrovia, in other words, he has the modesty to admit that they could be wrong. Rather than assume that his is the last and most definitive word on the subject, he always remains cognizant that he – and, for that matter, the audience – is a mere outsider to Monrovia.

That probably sounded vague, so let me try to clarify my point. Throughout the film, Wiseman continually reminds us that we and he are all outsiders to Monrovia. For instance, many sequences in the film follow the same structural pattern. Wiseman will introduce an establishing shot of a building, spend some time showing what goes on inside that building, provide another shot of the building’s exterior, and then repeat this process on another building. This framework reminds us that we’re third-party observers – in effect, it makes us feel like we’re tourists who’re “poking around” town.

From here, the camera also reminds us of our outsiderness by drawing attention to itself as a technical apparatus. When filming conversations, for instance, Wiseman frequently makes adjustments to the camera’s focus. Like a spectator turning his head, moreover, the camera repeatedly swivels back and forth between people as they engage in said conversations. As with the aforementioned structural framework, these camera techniques call attention to our act of watching, thereby keeping us aware of how different we are from the Monrovians we see on screen.

Image courtesy of Zipporah Films.

The point of all these “outsider reminders” becomes clear when you consider the way Wiseman’s films are usually understood. As films that adopt an apparently hands-off approach – they avoid interviews, voice-over narration, and other staples of the documentary genre – Wiseman’s documentaries have often been characterized as “observational” or “fly-on-the-wall.” Because of this, it’s tempting to think that Wiseman’s films are “objective,” and many critics have used that or similar adjectives to describe Monrovia itself.

In reality, however, Wiseman’s outsider reminders continually encourage you to question the film’s apparent “objectivity.” To take just one example of this, many scenes depict people who go about their work (e.g. giving haircuts, preparing food) without ever engaging their customers in conversation. Taken at face value, these scenes suggest that Monrovians are indifferent towards one another, thereby reinforcing the idea that the town lacks a sense of community. Yet when viewed in light of the camera’s outsider reminders, these scenes simultaneously compel you to challenge this intuitive reading. Is the presence of a camera – and, by extension, the presence of a third-party audience like us – affecting how these people interact? In other words, would they be more talkative and intimate if the camera weren’t there recording them?

Image courtesy of Zipporah Films.

By drawing attention to our act of watching, in short, Wiseman’s outsider reminders illustrate how the “objective” camera could actually be influencing what it’s depicting. And ultimately, that idea carries two important implications. First, many directors like to say that their goal is to make films that are “true to life” – and thanks to André Bazin, film criticism has long been influenced by the idea that movies should “impassively” and “impartially” represent reality. In his quiet but consistently provocative manner, however, Wiseman shows that these critics and filmmakers have got it wrong. Try as they might, filmmakers simply can’t be completely objective. Just as Wiseman’s presence probably made Monrovia’s hairdresser more reticent, in other words, the very act of cinematic representation affects the thing that’s being represented.

This all might sound a tad self-contradicting, as though Wiseman were disputing the accuracy of his own film. In reality, however, all he’s doing is showing some much-needed intellectual humility. Conventional documentaries (e.g. last year’s RBG), after all, tend to present arguments that are hermetically sealed, often failing to even acknowledge the possibility that alternatives to their worldview exist. By questioning his own objectivity, on the other hand, Wiseman is readily acknowledging that his analyses can and should be contested. In that sense, you could even say that his outside reminders are an invitation to debate: they leave an opening for other filmmakers to go to Monrovia and confirm, rebut, or tweak his conclusions.

Image courtesy of Zipporah Films.

The other takeaway from Monrovia’s outsider reminders concerns our current political moment. Over the past two years, opponents of Trump have often treated rural America with contempt, issuing judgmental denunciations of a region they view as a key factor behind Trump’s victory. In keeping with said outsider reminders, however, Monrovia suggests that we ought to be more thoughtful. Unless we come from rural America, the conclusions we draw about it will be incomplete. They’ll be tainted by errors, biases, and omissions – and as the hairdresser example illustrates, that’s partially because rural Americans won’t behave normally around external observers like us.

To be sure, Wiseman isn’t saying that it’s impossible to understand rural America if you’re an urbanite. Monrovia itself, after all, is his attempt to do just that. With his outsider reminders, Wiseman simply wants to remind us of the value of self-awareness – the importance, in other words, of realizing how our background could be an obstacle to understanding people with a different one. In his eyes, the fact that we’re outsiders makes it that much more essential that we give rural Americans the benefit of the doubt, even if that makes us uncomfortable. And as the U.S. gears up for another presidential election, the DNC – and all of Trump’s potential opponents – would do well to keep that admonition in mind.

Image courtesy of Zipporah Films.


Monrovia, Indiana (2018)

Running Time: 143 minutes

Produced, Edited, and Directed by: Frederick Wiseman