Filmmaker discusses Kansas documentary
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.
On Monday, Winston visited Basehor Community Library for a screening and discussion of the film, “What's the Matter with Kansas?” The collaboration among the Bonner Springs Library, Tonganoxie Public Library and the Basehor library brought in a national-profile speaker.
During an hourlong question-and-answer session with about 65 visitors, 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 about 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. Instead of strongly pushing a message, they gave 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 that splintered because of its pastor's politically charged messages and a farmers' union representative who testified before Congress because of a lack of support from the federal government.