I don't have good memories of Monrovia, Indiana, a small town in rural Morgan County of a little over 1,000 residents according the 2010 census.
I was a young man, probably in my early 20's, and one of my closest college friends lived in Monrovia. She was a gem, but I was a mess and it seemed like no matter how hard I tried I couldn't get my act together. One stormy night, I was headed out to her place on 70 West when my 76' Camaro got caught in the tailwind of a semi and flew over the side of the highway. Luckily, a tow truck was practically right behind me when it happened and quickly pulled me out.
Somehow, the car still ran.
I sputtered my way over to my friend's house, Amy was her name, and my already fragile psyche' was in full-blown overload to the point that I freaked out her young kid.
That was pretty much the end of what had been a good friendship, though we would see each other again years later in a local bookstore where she would struggle to remember my name.
I mean, seriously. How do you forget a paraplegic/double amputee in a wheelchair?
I thought about Amy a lot while watching prolific documentarian Frederick Wiseman's nearly 2 1/2 hour documentary called Monrovia, Indiana, a film that captures what it's like to live from day-to-day in a place like Monrovia, Indiana. Wiseman, who's nearing 90-years-old yet still produces about one feature length doc a year that he then releases through his own Zipporah Films, isn't putting on a show here. Monrovia, Indiana is more traditional documentary filmmaking, the kind of film that sits back and lets life happen without an ounce of worry about shtick or entertainment or having Wiseman shine the light on himself.
Wiseman ain't no Michael Moore, that's for sure.
What Wiseman is, however, is incredibly insightful about life in a myriad of ways. While some would consider rural Indiana to be practically the definition of Trump's America, Wiseman mostly avoids politics, at least national politics, in favor of the more communal aspects of life in rural America including a strong emphasis on Monrovia's community organizations and institutions, the importance of church life, and the occasionally mundane aspects of daily life in this farming community.
Even for native Hoosiers, Monrovia isn't exactly a place you think of when you think about Morgan County. Truthfully, I'd probably forgotten myself that Monrovia is even in Morgan County. When I think of Morgan County, I think of Mooresville or Martinsville.
Monrovia? Where is that again?
Yet, 46 million Americans live in rural, small town America and while the numbers have shrunk their importance hasn't as powerfully illustrated in the 2016 elections.
There I go trying to talk about politics again.
Monrovia, Indiana explores the conflicting stereotypes and examines how values like community service, duty, spiritual life, generosity, and authenticity are formed and experienced and lived out in towns just like Monrovia. As someone who has spent the better part of my adult life traveling from small town to small town by wheelchair, I resonated an awful lot with Monrovia, Indiana.
If I had a comparison for Monrovia, Indiana I'd say that it is for rural life what Into Great Silence was for living within the world of a strict religious order.
They're both pretty brilliant films.
If you know much about Wiseman, you might be surprised at the masterful and dignified ways in which he portrays Monrovia, Indiana and rural America. A native of Boston, Wiseman was a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association when he turned to filmmaking in 1967 after years of having been an instructor or researcher at Boston University, Brandeis University, and Harvard. With credentials such as his, you could almost forgive Wiseman should he ever turn the camera on himself.
He never does.
While many of Wiseman's films, including exceptional recent efforts like In Jackson Heights and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, find themselves set within a more progressive social structure, Wiseman's latest is squarely within an area that faithfully votes Republican. In fact, 75% of Morgan County voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election and you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find many of them who regret their vote.
While a documentarian like Michael Moore might be tempted to approach the various scenarios in Monrovia, Indiana with an abundance of snark, Wiseman beautifully portrays everything from town board meetings to Freemason gatherings to the rather traditional gathering of retired folks at the local dinner with equal curiosity and openness. One of the master strokes of Monrovia, Indiana is in how much time is afforded these scenes. It's as if Wiseman inherently understands that you really have to exist within these elements to gain an understanding. Wiseman doesn't let us leave until he truly believes it's time for us to leave.
Some might say that Monrovia, Indiana requires a lot of patience. I'd be tempted to say that Monrovia, Indiana requires a willingness to simply "be" amongst these folks who may or may not be different from you. A few years ago, a documentary called American Teen attempted to carry out a similar mission in an Indiana high school yet much of the film felt predictable and even manipulative.
There doesn't feel like there's an ounce of manipulation in Monrovia, Indiana.
Scheduled to begin its arthouse run on October 26th, this film is having a special screening at the 2018 Heartland International Film Festival on Monday, October 15th at 7:30pm at AMC Castleton Square. Zipporah Films, which is named after Wiseman's wife of nearly 65 years, is once again distributing.
For information on tickets, visit the Heartland website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic