All documentaries are propaganda. After all, documentaries and propaganda were enmeshed at least as far back as the Russian Revolution. The issue, of course, is whether one can trust the filmmakers behind the camera. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, many of the superpowers that would eventually clash in the cataclysm of World War II funded documentaries. There were the rousing, galvanizing juxtapositions in Soviet and German propaganda (The Eleventh Year, The Triumph of the Will), and the more contemplative montages of working-class oriented movies made in Britain and the US (Night Mail, The River), which in their desire to explain the importance of public initiatives to their citizens, were similarly — if not quite so menacingly — propagandistic. The documentary, which once charted out the frontier between news and entertainment, has since become a hybrid as culturally familiar as a fast food patty made of both beef and artificial ingredients. Viewers must then question the editing, the camerawork, the intention behind a documentary’s vision.
I trust Frederick Wiseman. His work seems as far as imaginable from both propaganda and storytelling, which only goes to show what a master Wiseman is as both propagandist and storyteller. He is also a technical and practical behemoth, on a very small scale. Since 1967, he has basically made one movie a year. He edits his films himself, a process so laborious and involved that he recently joked with the Paris Review that he only eats “intravenously” while editing. His control over his films’ distribution is extensive: when the four-hour long Belfast, Maine (1999) was aired on PBS, he made the station show the movie in its entirety, at primetime, without commercials. He has filmed each of his 44 features, about subjects ranging from daily life at UC Berkeley to the meatpacking industry, using only one camera and one boom microphone, which the 88-year-old filmmaker operates himself during shoots that last 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
The content of Wiseman’s films, which often focus on the kind of social programs that only a “big” government can provide, might remind one of WPA-funded early American documentaries. Yet his elucidations of various systems of American life are so detailed and sweeping that their ambitions are less similar to anything on celluloid than to the exhaustive projects of 19th-century French novels, like Balzac’s La Comedie Humaíne. Wiseman, who lives in Paris for much of the year, where he edits his footage on the top floor of a converted convent, is quick to connect his oeuvre to literature.
His movies frequently reflect the way small instances of organization — boardrooms, conference rooms, classrooms, stores — are ideal microcosms of the problems and possibilities of democracy. His latest, Monrovia, Indiana, is a pivot after two politically outspoken documentaries about New York City, In Jackson Heights (2015) and Ex Libris (2017). While these works are fiercely liberal in their perspectives on the rights of immigrants, the rights of transsexuals, and the place of government in education, his new movie occupies a much more subtle and opaque space. Monrovia is a town of about 1,500 people west of Indianapolis, and 72% of the surrounding precinct voted for Donald Trump in 2016. This fact, which Wiseman never communicates outright, is an unspoken assumption of both the film’s creation and peoples’ reasons for seeing it.
Yet Wiseman touches on national politics merely tangentially. The discussions that occur in the governmental meetings of Monrovia, in the restaurants and the high school and the local Freemasons’ Lodge, are of course far more specific and circumstantial than a mere reflection of the issues that preoccupy the entire country. A recurring debate involves the addition of housing to an area called the “Homestead,” which inhabitants and the Town Council oppose for different reasons. In one scene, a council member worries that the development caused an uptick in crime, and her wariness of opening the community to outsiders seems alarming. In another, the viewer learns that Monrovia is incapable of providing working fire hydrants to a number of its residential blocks. Suddenly, the town’s expansion seems worth opposing.
Food and agriculture work their way into many sequences. Monrovia is framed by shots of corn growing in a field. At an annual fair, Wiseman shoots a decal that reads: “I Go Bankrupt, You Go Hungry.” He takes his camera into the kitchen of local restaurants, into supermarkets, and into stockyards where cattle bear brands in preparation for their own slaughter. American flags take on ominous dimensions that they do not when he films New York City during the Obama years.
“I think a lot of political documentaries just preach to the converted,” Wiseman told the Boston Globe earlier this year. Yet it is Wiseman’s wariness about being a political filmmaker that make his films politically radical, his reluctance about propagandizing in a medium that has inextricable roots in propaganda. Monrovia, Indiana isn’t quite the scintillating investigation into life in a red state that audiences might expect. It is, like all of Wiseman’s work, a film about life. And because it was made in 2018, Monrovia is a film about our times: a quiet demonstration that, unlike the people who currently govern this country, Frederick Wiseman loves humanity.