Filmmakers pose the question: ‘What’s the matter with KS?’
Joe Winston and Laura Cohen came to Kansas to film a documentary based on a book of political commentary.
But for the movie version, the Chicago husband-and-wife filmmaking team decided to let the state speak for itself.
Winston visited Basehor Community Library on Monday for a screening and discussion of the film, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”
The event was the first of its kind in the area, a collaboration among the Bonner Springs Library, Tonganoxie Public Library and the Basehor library that brought in a national-profile speaker. By about 10 minutes before the screening began, organizers were carrying extra chairs into the meeting room where the event took place to seat the growing crowd.
During an hourlong question-and-answer session with the 64 visitors in attendance, Winston filled in the audience on how he and his wife filmed and produced the film, why it differed from the bestselling 2004 Thomas Frank book on which it was based, and what has happened to some of its real-life characters since filming was completed in 2007.
Several people asked why the book’s left-tilting political message — that the rise of the conservative movement in Kansas has caused many of its citizens to vote against their own economic interests — was not expressed as strongly in the movie.
That difference, Winston said, resulted from a conscious decision by the filmmakers, as well as Frank, the author of the book.
At the time they were planning the film in the mid-2000s, Winston said, a number of highly opinionated documentaries were hitting screens, the most famous of which were those directed by liberal commentator Michael Moore.
“Laura and I thought it would be interesting to take a slightly different tack with this,” Winston said, “because we think that sort of the traditional, rallying-the-troops political message movie, that can be pretty divisive.”
Instead of strongly pushing a message, they decided to give viewers more of a full picture of the people who live in Kansas, especially those involved in the movement of social conservatism that has arisen since the Wichita abortion protests of the early 1990s.
“We felt that these are the people who are not well understood in much of the country: often caricatured, often talked about, but rarely heard from,” Winston said.
Because of that strategy, he said, the film does not feature a narrator or interviews with “experts.” Rather, it examines the state of Kansas through the stories of several real-life “characters” whose lives intersect with political activism and religion, including the members of a Baptist church in Wichita who splintered because of their pastor’s politically charged messages and a farmers’ union representative who testified before Congress because of a lack of support from the federal government.
To follow those people’s lives, Winston and his wife made 13 separate trips to Kansas, compiling more than 160 hours of footage before cutting it down to a 90-minute running length. They visited all parts of the state, he said, but northeast Kansas was left out of the final cut because the people they chose to follow lived in other areas of the state.
“We really wanted to stay clear of the Michael Moore route and let our people carry the film, and this is kind of where they took it,” Winston said.
Frank, the author, does appear in the movie as he travels the state in search of evidence of the state’s history of radical movements, including the populist and socialist movements around the turn of the 20th century. He visits a building in Girard that once printed the national socialist publication “Appeal to Reason,” which had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the country for a time.
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the movie 3 1/2 stars in a 2009 review, and he listed it as one of his “10 best documentaries of 2009.”
“What’s interesting is that every single person in this film is seen as themselves, is allowed to speak and seems to have a good heart,” Ebert wrote in his review.
Winston said the film was influenced by the love Frank expressed for his home state, and its unique qualities, in his book.
“That, to him, is equally important: the idea that Kansas is a place that’s important,” Winston said. “It’s not ‘fly-over country,’ like jerks from the coasts tend to say about this part of the country.”