The documentary ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas’ holds a mirror up to various cultural and political elements in the state and explores the diversity of thought and beliefs of its residents. The film is based on the bestseller by the same name written by Thomas Frank, but in some ways exceeds the book because filmmakers Laura Cohen and Joe Winston exercise admirable restraint by not making another pseudo-documentary that is nothing more than a political assassination piece. This film covers religion, politics, economic issues, and the radical roots of the state, so there is something in it for everyone. I strongly urge readers to head over to E Street Cinema to see the most thought-provoking documentary in a very long time.
The film contains interviews with pro and anti-abortion elements in the state, devout followers of Creationism, a pastor who suffers a fall from grace, an iconoclast artist, and working class folks who have a lot to say about war and politics. Cohen and Winston had enough material to turn this documentary into a hit piece on pro-lifers and evangelicals, or a story of the plight of the small farmer. Instead, they perform a great service to their audience by allowing us to see the spectrum of people and beliefs in the state, and to draw our own conclusions.
The film stays true to the book in that it documents how Kansas has changed from a hotbed of radical thought to a socially conservative state. But the filmmakers deftly avoid a mistake made in the book by trying to address the question of why people sometimes vote against their own interests. It’s really a false issue to raise. The film clearly demonstrates that the top issue for many Kansans is not the economy, but social issues, so in a sense they are voting their interests, and the filmmakers make no judgments about their priorities. Also, there is an assumption that groups who vote their interests benefit. Take a trip to southeast D.C. where the vote is about 95% Democrat and see how that has worked out.
Despite the lack of a narrator directing the audience what to think, this film works as an important commentary on the current culture war taking place throughout the country. The film contains clips of Kansans arguing that dinosaurs existed 4,300 years ago, and the ‘fact’ that Jupiter’s core is still warm because it was recently created. An audience does not need to be instructed how to respond to this lunacy, and the filmmakers avoid the cruelty of other documentaries on the same subject. The film also contains very insightful and sophisticated arguments by Kansans as they struggle with their political identities in the face of a Bush Administration engaged nation-building, running up a deficit, and ignoring any concept of a separation between church and state.
Winston graciously made himself available for a chat after the screening of the film. Winston is not an ideologue or a political hack, he is a filmmaker. He stresses that this film harkens back to the original style of documentaries by presenting an objective and true depiction of his subject matter. Hopefully, other documentary filmmakers will model themselves after Winston and create films that provoke thought rather than promote a political agenda. Head over to E Street Cinema and maybe you will get a chance to meet him.