In these troubled times, political documentaries are popping up in record numbers. Ever since the controversial polemics of Michael Moore started making real waves near the beginning of the millennium, film makers from all points along the political spectrum have been fired up to keep people thinking, to keep people scared, and hopefully, to keep people active in doing their part to make things better. “What’s the Matter With Kansas” is another solidly produced addition to this welcome wave of meaningful cinema.
Created by Laura Cohen and Joe Winston (based on the book by Thomas Frank) this film is a pastiche of interview footage that paints a portrait of Kansas, the heart of America, in 2006. The film begins with some picturesque shots of rural Kansas and a tune by the incomparable Neko Case. For the next ninety minutes, a variety of Kansans comment on their political views and their religious views, which are usually tied together. The film is less a proper documentary than a montage of collected footage that leaves viewers completely free to draw their own conclusions. There is no narration, there are no introductory titles, and there is no clear point of view expressed by the film makers. The film is assembled in a way that soft-pedals its eventual message and seems to be simply a balanced contemporary portrait of rural America.
That said, the larger portion of the interviews are with hopelessly naive and xenophobic right-wing religious fundamentalists. As seen in the footage, these people revel in their lack of education, and their refusal to open their eyes or minds to the bigger picture outside of their little lives near Wichita. A few of their neighbors are living in the modern world, and express perspectives more in step with contemporary thinking (such as a curmudgeonly sculptor and a progressively-minded farmer who goes to Washington to speak on behalf of his peers). For the most part, these voices of reason get less face time, as the filmmakers allow the backwards zealots to dig themselves deeper into self-ridicule with every scene.
And yet, it is all done rather subtly, and one might believe that the documentarians are trying their best to be impartial. But slowly, and over time, the message becomes clear. Kansas is slowly sinking into ruin due to the population’s stubborn refusal to abandon their outdated and misguided ways of thinking. And yet, there is hope for the future (aside from the mortifying realization that the people in this film are what most people around the world think of when they think of Americans).
What I took away from “What’s the Matter With Kansas”, is that Kansas was once a center of culture, of progressive political thought, and of America’s core values. Now it is a center of narrow-minded, evangelical sheep who resolutely reject any ideas that threaten their desperate resolve to cling to the outmoded fairy tales that dictate their lives. But, there is hope as these ingrained thought processes are finally beginning to erode, and clear thinking is just beginning to prevail. Ultimately the film is a message of hope, although the message is a subtle one.