“Moundsville” to Screen at America Magazine in New York City

Although I discovered Moundsville on a reporting trip for the Wall Street Journal in 2013, and wrote a fun front-page story about a paranormal hot-dog stand, it wasn’t until 2018 that I tried to write something deeper about the town, and realized how rich a place it was.

By that time, I had left the Journal and was hunting a meaningful, once-in-a-lifetime project. I’ve long been an admirer of America, a Jesuit-run magazine with a circulation of around 50,000. The magazine offers, I think, a unique marriage of truth and faith, of reporting facts, and insisting on respect for each human person. I found editor Tim Reidy on Twitter and offered to pitch some stories. The first one the magazine took was about Moundsville. Since 2013, I had returned to the town a half-dozen times on fact-finding trips. By that time, I knew what I was looking for. I started the story this way:

No matter what time of day it is, Phil Remke, the ebullient vice mayor of this West Virginia river town of 8,700, salutes every constituent the same way: “Top of the morning to ya.”

It is still early enough in Trump’s America for supporters like Mr. Remke to hope that the president can carry more of the fantasies he spun into triumph, and late enough to get a sense of what is actually happening.

The America story, which ran at over 2,500 words on the cover of the magazine, was the first time I realized that the town stood for multiple social, geographic, cultural and economic strands of America’s past, present and future.

Around that time, Dave Bernabo and I got funding from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council to make the documentary. The movie is different, in large part because so much of it is about the 2,200-year-old burial mound in the middle of town, but the article laid some important intellectual and conceptual foundations, and helped convince the arts council that we had a story to tell.

Anyway, now America is going to host a screening of “Moundsville” at 6pm on Jan. 14 at their headquarters in New York, in midtown Manhattan, right across the street from the Wall Street Journal.

The idea is to show the movie to interested journalists, academics, church leaders and policy people, and then have a conversation about it. I’m thrilled, and excited to see what comes out of all this. — John






Why there’s no Trump in “Moundsville”

I have an essay in Sunday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that tells the story of premiering “Moundsville” in Moundsville. It also tackles the T word. One reason journalists got obsessed with telling stories about small-town America is, of course, the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Explaining why people grew to support the reality-TV star was something we thought we’d be doing, too, when we made “Moundsville”. And, when we filmed the movie, we asked every single person (around 40, total) we interviewed about who they voted for in 2016, and why. I’m guessing a bit over half voted for Trump. (In the whole county, it was 73%-22% for the president.) There were some interesting surprises. But when it came time to edit tens and tens of hours of interviews into a 74-minute movie, almost all the material about Trump was, well, boring. People were basically saying stuff they had seen on cable news. And why not? How else would they get information? They don’t live in Washington. What they knew about was Moundsville and what had happened there. Talking about Moundsville is when our subjects sounded smartest and most thoughtful, and we wanted all our subjects to sound smart and thoughtful. And that’s why there’s no Trump in “Moundsville.”

Details for Pittsburgh Premiere of “Moundsville” at Carnegie Museum

“Moundsville” will premiere in Pittsburgh on Jan. 17 at 8pm, at one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world, the Carnegie Museum of Art. You can buy tickets ($10; $8 for members; $5 for students) via the museum website. The movie will be screened in a small theatre that seats around 200. (So make sure to book soon.) Dave and I will both be there, and we’ll take some questions. The screening is part of the museum’s very fun Third Thursday series. We’re sharing the billing with  DJ Buscrates. The museum is also relaunching Storyboard, its online journal, with activities that include writing a six-word story inspired by artworks in the Carnegie International and participating in “conversations that link art with contemporary issues.” And this, by the way, is what the museum says about the series: “Third Thursday brings together the hottest local talent from around the city to create surprising one-of-a-kind experiences. Turn up the volume with a cash bar, live music, and performances along with late-night access to the museum galleries.” See you there!

The Der Spiegel scandal, parachuting, and why journalists should behave more like anthropologists

I hope the story about the reporter for the German magazine Der Spiegel who went to the small town in Minnesota and made everybody look like gun-toting Trump-worshiping idiots in a long story full of falsehoods highlights the qualities of “Moundsville”.

There is a way to cover heartland America in a way that resonates with all sides of the political spectrum, because it’s based on, well, the truth. That’s the path that avoids liberal condescension and nationalist nostalgia. I’ve been coming to Moundsville to talk to people, off and on, for five years. During trips from my home in Pittsburgh, I got to know people who were trustworthy and authoritative, and, when it came time to make our documentary, that’s who Dave and I chose as our characters. And we came to the town to premiere the movie, and stayed afterwards to hear reactions from townsfolk, whatever they may be. It made me very nervous.

There’s an old tradition in journalism known as “parachuting”, where a reporter goes into a place for a few days, gets wired up with sources, and then writes, in an authoritative tone, a commanding story about a town. The old joke about this is that you can only write about a place if you’ve been there more than 10 years or less than 10 days. Anybody with a long career in journalism has done this. I’ve done it. That’s what the Der Spiegel reporter, Claas Relotius, had been turning into a glorious career. Except he was faking it, and thanks to a couple of local muckrakers with internet access and an insistence on the truth, he, rightly, got got.

At a time when distrust in the media is high — unfortunate, because American newspapers are, I think, world-class — maybe it’s time to empower local sources to be a part of the fact- (and tone-) checking process. One thing I’ve learned recently in talking to cultural anthropologists is that it’s become a custom to present one’s fieldwork to the people it’s about. Maybe it’s time for journalists to adopt similar practices.




“Moundsville” Released Online + Bonus Feature

Hi everybody, we’ve now released “Moundsville” online! You can rent or buy the movie here. We’ve also released a bonus feature where I explain why we made this movie. We’re still figuring out how the life of an independent movie works. But there is one thing I know for sure: We need YOUR help. Please, please share those links on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, reddit, and anywhere else you hang out online. Tell your friends about “Moundsville”. Recommend that your local theatre book us. We want the movie to be part of a larger conversation. Feel free to email or call me anytime if you have questions. More soon! Meanwhile, thank you again for your support. John.

Why Moundsville?

America’s conversation about its shared economy, politics and culture doesn’t have to be divisive. The starting point for a new kind of dialogue is a truthful reckoning with our past, from thousands of years ago, through 20th century boom and sticky bust, to the present of the gas economy and service jobs, and to the wild, open-ended future. By telling the biography of a classic American town — Moundsville, WV, pop. 8,000 — that has all these important elements, in the words of the most thoughtful people we found in a year of traveling there, we hope to lay at least one brick in the foundation for this new kind of conversation. 46919155_10156734794601664_140091684187799552_o

Online release Saturday, Dec. 15!

It’s the holiday season, and I’ve just arrived at my parents in Brussels, where I lived most of my life before moving to Pittsburgh in 2011. When I came to Western Pennsylvania that year to cover steel and mining for the Wall Street Journal, I was drawn to places that explain America to me. I’m the child of expatriate classical musicians who settled in Brussels in the 1970s, and when I was young America was a distant symphony. I knew the high notes: baseball, jazz, candy. I didn’t know much about things like slavery, the turmoil of the 1960s, or post-industrial decline. In this decade, I’ve been drawn to cities and towns that explain America, like Detroit, Dayton or DC. It was that curiosity that drew me off of I-70 on a summer day in 2013 and into Moundsville. That journey led to making this movie with Dave Bernabo, a prolific Pittsburgh filmmaker. Saturday, Dec. 15 is a big day in the process. We’ll release the full version of “Moundsville” online, for renting and buying. You can even preorder, and here’s the link for that. We don’t have a distribution deal, so we’re spreading the word with screenings, online marketing and word of mouth. Please help spread the word! Thanks! John