Film Review: Monrovia, Indiana

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman digs into a small Midwestern town, opening a window into the heartland.
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In a career that includes over forty titles, Frederick Wiseman has explored the government, the military, occupations and institutions large and small. In all his work, he's focused on basic questions. How do things work? How do people live?

Like Wiseman's Aspen and Belfast, Maine, Monrovia, Indiana explores an individual community, looking at its residents, politics and economics. Wiseman's methods and goals are simple. With his longtime cinematographer John Davey, he turns a camera on people and lets them go about their daily lives. That's the point of the movie, as well—not to tell or explain, but to let viewers learn for themselves.

It's a method that in the wrong hands can quickly turn boring. But Wiseman has an uncanny knack of finding the right individual, the right moment to reveal more than quotidian details. A high school teacher tells a class about a former student who became a famous basketball coach, while a girl in the front row of desks tries to hide her yawn.

In that one moment viewers are reminded of the stifling boredom of school, get a sense of Monrovia's past and traditions, and perhaps begin to understand a little about a Midwest that's often caricatured by the media.

Monrovia, Indiana is filled with moments like these, scenes that reveal beliefs and attitudes without criticizing them. The urban planner who wants to expand housing, the homeowner who complains about broken fire hydrants, the festival vendor pitching what looks like the modern-day equivalent of snake oil—they are depicted with the same attention and empathy that Wiseman brings to all his subjects.

Wiseman loves to show processes, how things are done. How a pizza shop works, how a farmer sprays his fields, how butchers prepare ground meat, how pigs are loaded onto a trailer (hint: it's not easy). He's attuned to social interactions as well, like the crowds at a summer festival, or the old guys who talk around a diner table.

Monrovia is Trump country, perhaps one of the reasons why Wiseman decided to film in the Midwest for the first time. It's also becoming a bedroom community for commuters to nearby Indianapolis, with a consequent loss of farmland and increasing demands on local finances and infrastructure. With this documentary, Wiseman helps show why anyone interested in national politics should be paying attention to places like Monrovia.

Wiseman bookends Monrovia, Indiana with religious scenes. First a pastor speaks of trials and tribulations to a prayer group; a different preacher uses troubles and burdens in a funeral oration. As Davey pans over a rainswept cemetery, we see names we have learned from earlier moments in the documentary engraved on tombstones. If there is any "message" to Monrovia, Indiana, it may be that we all share the same fate.