Filmmakers Joe Winston and Laura Cohen have made a documentary based on Thomas Frank's classic book, What's the Matter With Kansas?. The film has the same title, although its focus differs from that of the book. While Frank makes a measured political argument based on facts and statistics, the filmmakers rely on real Kansans to depict the "Kansas" Zeitgeist.
The film is remarkable in that it has no voice-over narration or commentary of any kind. From the first scene to the last, you are watching actual Kansans go about their daily lives. Their activities, as well as their own comments, create the theme and viewpoint of the film.
Those activities and comments support Thomas Frankís thesis -- that Kansans are conservative because they value their position on such social issues as abortion more than they value their economic situation. Angel Dillard, one of the religious conservatives featured in the film, is a staunch pro-lifer who works hard for the cause. She and her family seem to be comfortable financially, but they endure a great financial loss in the course of the film -- one that would be sizable regardless of their income. Yet, they accept the loss gracefully, as part of Godís will.
Economic issues play a large part in the life of another character, Donn Teske, who is struggling to hold onto his family farm. One of the film's most poignant scenes shows him at the gravesites of his ancestors, simultaneously proud of them and sad for his own circumstances; they had been able to work this land successfully -- why couldnít he?
The film touches on the Kansas economy mostly in passing. We see many decrepit buildings and follow the failure of a business, but mostly we see happy, vibrant conservative Christians living their faith. The effect of having their views presented without contrasting comments is powerful and unnerving.
Brittany Barden, who in the film is preparing to attend Patrick Henry College (whose web site adds "For Christ and Liberty" after the college's name), matter-of-factly states that America is a Christian nation. Her mother sweetly explains to the camera that eighty percent of Christians who attend secular colleges abandon their faith by the time they graduate.
The documentary makes it clear that sticking to their faith is the ultimate goal of these families. The Bardens are clearly uplifted by their visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where a guide gives a rapid-fire justification of creationism that a dissenter would find difficult to interrupt, much less debate. The Bardens simply nod and smile.
I saw the film at its Lincoln Center Film Society screening in New York. The filmmakers were there, and they reported that Thomas Frank and the people who appear in the film are all very pleased with the final result. I can see how they would be. The film expands on Frank's ideas and makes his Kansas a vivid, undeniable true place. The film also presents conservatives as three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood people -- not as caricatures to be laughed at derisively.
In a panel discussion after the film, France Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, declared it to be an excellent ethnography, which it is. The other panelists debated about whether the film would engender understanding between liberals and conservatives, and the general consensus was that it would not.
As the quizzes at YourMorals.Org show us, our positions on issues such as abortion are deep-seated and gut-level. No matter how well I may know Angel Dillard from this film, and no matter how much I may empathize with her life story and admire her pluck and vivacity, I am not going to change my opinion about abortion and neither is she.
I highly recommend the What's the Matter With Kansas? documentary as an unedited look into a particularly fascinating culture and mindset. Whether you find its characters to be heroes, misguided victims of the Christian conservative movement, or just one of the many varieties of Americans in this great big country of ours, the film most certainly leaves that decision up to you.