In the early years of the 20th century, Kansas was known as a hotbed of radical thinkers. But in more recent years the state has grown into a bastion of conservative politics. How this Midwestern state was transformed into a Republican stronghold is explored in the new documentary “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”
The film, based on Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” follows a handful of Kansans over a three-year period. There is Angel Dillard, a devout Christian who heads the anti-abortion booth at the state fair; Brittany Barden, a young conservative Christian who is politically active; and Donn Teske, a farmer who is very much against “corporate greed.”
“This movie is a conversation starter,” director Joe Winston says. “This movie gets people talking to each other and, of course, in group discussions questioning their assumptions about what this country is like and who lives here.”
The film does not have a narrator, nor does it state a point of view. Instead it is an objective look at these people and the way they live their lives.
“The thing to understand is the way that I go about making documentaries is very different from Michael Moore,” he says. “My interviewing style is very friendly and nonconfrontational. I’m not really interested in confronting people. I’m interested in getting to know who they are.”
The idea for the film was born in the summer of 2004 when Winston attended a lecture by Frank during his book tour. The director and his wife, producer Laura Cohen, approached the author about making a documentary.
“I asked him if the movie rights were available and he just laughed. He didn’t seem to know what to make of the idea,” Winston remembers.
After Frank signed off on the idea, Winston and Cohen headed to Kansas, where they interviewed all of the characters in the book, as well as others. The director says he was apprehensive about finding subjects who would speak openly with him and his crew. “Conservatives, especially in small-town America, are initially very suspicious of the media, and I think with great justification.”
He remedied this by reaching out to the local pastor Terry Fox, who led a congregation of 6,000 at the Immanuel Baptist Church in Wichita. At the time, Fox was being targeted by liberal groups for preaching conservative politics from the pulpit. When Winston approached Fox, he was more than willing to help with the project.
“He didn’t even ask who we were or what we wanted to do. He just said, Come on down,'” Winston says. “He was very confident. This was a man at the top of his game.”
Fox introduced Winston to his most politically active congregants, namely Dillard and Barden, both of whom agreed to appear in the documentary. Over the course of 13 visits, the film’s crew shot 165 hours of film. “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” follows the characters as they prepare for the midterm elections and as their church eventually splinters. Fox is asked by church leadership to resign, so he moves with his followers to a nearby amusement park.
The 90-minute film opens at the E Street Theater on Friday and has already premiered in Kansas.
“We hope that this is a new form of political documentary,” Winston says. “A lot of them are designed to end conversations, and this one is designed to start conversations.”