Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has immersed filmgoers into the inner workings of institutions and communities for over half a century. He has brought his camera inside a state hospital of the criminally insane (Titicut Follies ), a national art gallery (National Gallery ), an opera company (La Danse )), and even a zoo (Zoo ). His remarkably consistent style is marked by attentiveness, patience, and restraint — there are no title cards or voiceovers, scenes following one another don’t immediately relate. Wiseman shies away from imposing a narrative impetus.
As such, his films may at first seem distant, flat, and apolitical. But as time passes, and we draw closer to the beating heart of the community he is observing, his films become intimate, textured, and political. It is like watching a tapestry being made from scratch: all we see at first are loose threads, but then the embroidery starts to form a picture. It takes a few minutes to acclimatise to his films and to sync with his rhythm of observation but once you do, he can make something as quotidian as grocery shopping seem insightful and fascinating; he makes the everyday hypnotic.
For his latest film, Monrovia, Indiana, Wiseman explores the small rural town of Monrovia, located in the US state of Indiana — Vice President Mike Pence’s home state. Even though Wiseman is not overtly political in his filmmaking, political discourse often emerges through unexpected ways — during a town planning meeting, a man Freudian slips “co-operation” as “collusion”, to the amusement of everyone else. I don’t recall the name Trump being said out loud during the film, but his presence is felt. What Wiseman chooses to shoot is in itself a political act —in Monrovia, he shows politics not by taping people talk about it, but instead by showing its effect on how people live their lives. Unlike other documentary filmmakers, such as Michael Moore, Wiseman resists the urge to insert himself into the situations he records and, more importantly, feels no obligation to tell a story with one beginning, one middle, and one end. He understands that people’s stories have loose ends, their threads entangled with other people’s stories. During the town planning meetings for example, issues remain unresolved and questions hang in the air. He cuts the scene when we have seen enough. He’s not interested in answers or questions; he’s interested in process.
Wiseman wants us to see what we cannot see, such as how decisions made by institutions affect the community and how those decisions impact on an individual’s everyday life. His films show us the flap of the butterfly wing and the hurricane: three elderly men in a diner discuss going to post-op therapy after a bypass surgery; we are shown images of the standard American supermarket aisle, piled high with soda and potato chips. There’s no need to mention healthcare infrastructure, corporate greed, and obesity rates but there they are. The only person of colour I remember seeing in the entire community is a black woman at a wedding — not as a guest but as a hired wedding singer. There’s no need to mention racial division but there it is. Though everything is out in the open, it takes an eye like Wiseman’s to truly see something in plain sight.
Monrovia, Indiana will be playing on Sat 8 June and Sat 15 June 2019 as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.
Jesue Valle is a design graduate from the University of Technology, Sydney. He created the Instagram account Cineshots and cineshotsblog.com where he writes reviews on new releases and occasionally, some classic films.