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.”
John W. Miller
“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!
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.
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.
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.
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
Besides the Jan. 17 Pittsburgh premiere at the Carnegie Museum of Art, we have more screenings in the works. We’re in talks to premiere at a mid-town venue in New York City on Jan. 14., and Wheeling at two different locations early in the year. And of course, the online release is coming up on Dec. 15. It’s exciting. We’re looking forward to showing people the movie, and hearing the reactions of people outside Appalachia to this very American story.
What a great evening in Moundsville on Friday night! 170 people attended the premiere of “Moundsville” last night — at the Strand in Moundsville. It cost $5, the seats were comfortable and the lobby smelled like popcorn. And, a bit to my surprise, they seemed to really like it! We got some laughs, and, at the end, applause. “We didn’t know what to expect, because, you know, big city journalists,” one lady told us during the Q&A. “But you were balanced, and we appreciate that.” For me, this project has always been about trying to tell the story of this key drama — the American small town — in a way that spoke authentically to people who live in places like Moundsville, and was also true and journalistically sound. Along the way, thanks mostly to actual filmmaker David Bernabo, we’ve made what appears to be a pretty good movie! We have deals with the Carnegie Museum of Art (Jan. 17) and Towngate in Wheeling, and are talking to colleges, churches and other organizations. And it will be available online on Vimeo Dec. 15. You can pre-order here. Stay tuned — lots more to come!
Tonight marks a new chapter in my fascination with Moundsville, which started in 2013 when I pulled off I-70 on my way back from a coal mine. I hope the movie succeeds in its goal in illuminating the nature of small town economies, capitalism, America, Western civilization… And that it makes people think and laugh! You can buy tickets here. Doors at the Strand theatre in Moundsville open at 630pm. Movie starts at 7pm. See you there!
Al Olson has a nice write-up of “Moundsville” in the The Intelligencer. “A documentary featuring Moundsville was chosen to represent the archetypal post-industrial American town,” he writes. The best part, though is this:
Moundsville City Council began its Tuesday meeting by enthusing about the movie. Mayor Allen Hendershot expressed a desire to see those who attend the meeting in the theater during the debut.
That’s cool. I hope they like the movie!