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Telling the Story of Small-town America, without Donald Trump

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Photo: David Bernabo

When two Minnesota writers busted a star reporter for German magazine Der Spiegel for skewering their town with fabrications, it affirmed the worst stereotypes about condescending city journalists wading into the heartland.

But you don’t have to make stuff up to worry about how your reporting on small-town America is going to be received. Since the 2016 election, the tension on main street between storyteller and subject has polluted public discourse and trust during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting the story exactly right is always hard.

That’s why I was so nervous a few Fridays ago, when filmmaker Dave Bernabo and I drove 75 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh, to Moundsville, W.Va., for the premiere of our feature documentary about the town.

The movie, which is available online, will debut in New York on Jan. 14 and in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Art on Jan. 17. But the Moundsville performance was the one I was nervous about. For the first time in my two-decade career in journalism, on publication day, I would be facing my sources.

Small town

Dave and I were two city intellectuals, blue dots floating into a red town, and we’d committed to answering questions from the audience after the movie.

Our goal with “Moundsville” was to tell the economic biography of a classic American small town— a place out of a Jimmy Stewart movie — and show how it had changed and how it was coping, in a way that illustrated this moment in American history.

Moundsville, pop. 8,494, was the perfect fit. Its industrial boom included dozens of factories, including the Marx toy plant, which made the Rock’em Sock’em robots. Now it enjoyed a typical service economy, anchored around a Walmart, a hospital and a prison. And in the middle was the Grave Creek Mound, a prehistoric burial site left behind by hunter-gatherers who roamed Appalachia thousands of years ago, and a sure mark of time’s insistence on change.

Moundsville is the seat of a county that had voted 73.1 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, compared to 22.1 percent for Hillary Clinton, so, yes, maybe we’d reveal something deeper about the Trump phenomenon, but that wasn’t the primary goal.

Instead, we wanted mainly to tell the truth about the past, present and future of an iconic small town in a way that avoided nationalist nostalgia or liberal condescension. By focusing on shared history, without getting distracted by Washington politics, we’d show that Americans can still have common reality-based narratives that lay the groundwork for healthier debate.

We spent almost a year reporting, filming and editing. The approach we developed was to select the most thoughtful residents we could find, and let them tell the story. Our characters included a waiter, an archeologist, a paranormal collector, a toy historian and the poet laureate of West Virginia.

When we asked about politics, the answers were almost always clichés, copied and pasted from cable news. We made a decision: No Trump.

When we finished in November, we got an offer from Phil Remke, one of the main characters in the movie, and now the mayor of Moundsville: How about premiering at the Strand, that boxy red-brick theatre at the end of Moundsville’s main street, Jefferson Avenue?

The Strand opened in 1920 and seats 400. When Moundsville flourished, it hosted traveling plays and vaudeville acts. These days, it welcomes everything from bluegrass concerts and musicals for kids to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and stand-up comedy. It also hosts birthday parties and dance recitals.

We booked a Friday night and set ticket prices at $5, and then worried if anybody would show up.

Fulfilling the code

Media coverage of post-industrial towns tends to focus on economic poverty. This plant closed. This number of jobs were lost. Less discussed is the loss of culture. Factories with good jobs attract educated people with disposable income. An economy based on service jobs at the Walmart, the prison and the hospital offers less of a base to support theaters, museums and bookstores. “People have less money to spend, and it’s mostly older people,” Sadie Crowe, the young part-time general manager of the Strand, told me.

As soon as I got to the Strand on opening night, an hour before the show, I knew we’d be OK. There was a line.

We sold 146 tickets, mostly to people in their 50s and older. The box office tally “blows any other movie we’ve had this year out of the water,” Ms. Crowe told me later.

John W. Miller, a Pittsburgh-based writer and former Wall Street Journal reporter (pictured), has made a feature documentary about the town of Moundsville, W.Va. with Pittsburgh filmmaker David Bernabo. Photo: Matt McDermit/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The audience went quiet with concentration when the movie started. We got some laughs.

Then came a scene where a young Latino man talks about “racism in Moundsville.” A hush. Later, there was another conspicuous silence when Bill Wnek, a retired teacher, blames plant closures on capitalism. Local factories are bound to close “if you can get it cheaper somewhere else,” he says.

I was worried when the lights went up and it was time for the Q&A.

Suzanne Park, the director of the shuttered West Virginia State Penitentiary, now a tourist attraction, took the microphone. “Thank you for not making this political,” she said. “We didn’t know if we could trust you, because, you know, big-city journalists,” she said. “But you were balanced, and we appreciate that.” Others raised their hand. They had all liked the movie.

After the premiere, I discovered that we had fulfilled a code developed by some anthropologists. Presenting a finished work to the subject “is about respect, but it’s also about interaction, collaboration and growth,” University of Pittsburgh anthropologist Loukas Barton told me.

For example, native communities that Mr. Barton has studied in Alaska “have used my work in negotiations with other landowners,” he said. “Self-knowledge can give a community political power.” There’s a long history of outsiders “using and abusing the history of a place for their own purposes, and you’d don’t want to do that,” he said.

Shared history

I called a handful of locals for more conversation.

Like Ms. Park, others thanked me for not making the movie about Mr. Trump. It didn’t bother them that we had presented Moundsville’s decline, as well as problems with the gas industry and Walmart. They know things are hard; they just don’t like being lectured to, they explained.

“We all have opinions about politics and history will judge,” said Rose Hart, founder of a charity called Appalachian Outreach. “But both parties are so dysfunctional it’s better to stick to reality.”

By offering a shared history, the movie “makes it easier for us to talk about how to improve the town,” said Steve Hummel, a collector of haunted objects.

Gene Saunders, the town’s first and only African-American mayor, has a key role in the movie, explaining the discrimination he grew up with in the 1950s. “A lot of people here didn’t know Moundsville was segregated,” he said. “Your movie told them.”

Mary Britt moved to Moundsville six years ago to accompany her husband, who got a job at the local hospital. “I just liked learning more about the town,” she said. “You told a lot of stories that even people here don’t know.”

And she, too, thanked us, for avoiding the T word.

“I bet 90 percent percent of the people at the premiere voted for him,” said Ms. Britt. “But they don’t want an outsider telling them about it.”

A few weeks after the premiere, Ms. Crowe, the Strand’s manager, emailed to say people in town liked the movie so much that the theater will screen it twice more, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m on Jan. 19.

And on Facebook, one town resident declared she was downloading “Moundsville” — as a Christmas gift.

This story was originally published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.