Review: Real people drive story in documentary 'What's the Matter with Kansas'

2010-05-27T23:30:00Z Review: Real people drive story in documentary 'What's the Matter with Kansas'By L. KENT WOLGAMOTT / Lincoln Journal Star

Angel Dillard is a hobby farmer who lives outside Wichita, Kan., sings at services at her evangelical church and is a political activist, supporting right-wing, anti-abortion candidates.

Donn Teske is a real farmer, working land that has been in his family for decades and hoping to pass it along to one of his sons. The president of the Kansas Farmers Union, Teske calls himself a "populist without a party" and is politically active, going to Washington to testify before Congress about the plight of the family farmer.

Their stories provide the poles for "What's the Matter with Kansas?" a documentary that uses Thomas Frank's book as the starting point to examine the political and culture schism that is tearing the country apart.

Director Joe Winston, a Chicagoan who had never been to Kansas before starting the film, tells Dillard's story along with that of her husband, emergency room physician Rob, and those of some of her friends and political allies without demonizing them, which is the common take for documentary films, most of which come from the left.

That is not to say that "Kansas" doesn't have a cautionary element. But its warning about the rise of the cultural right is subtle, and its treatment of conservatives is fair.

There are other characters in the film as well, most notably an 18-year-old, home-schooled, evangelical Christian who is planning to attend elite ultra-conservative political training school Patrick Henry College; a crusty old artist whose metal creations are bitingly political; Latino families who work at meat plants; and Pastor Terry Fox, who leads the megachurch.

Together, those stories and a look back at the populist history of Kansas create a blend that is instantly recognizable to any Plains dweller, an ever-more-divisive confrontation of politics, religion and economics.

The only thing a filmmaker can do, Winston said in an interview, is "shine a flashlight" on the conflict and hope that it contributes to discussion and meaningful dialogue that might bring the country together. "What's the Matter with Kansas?" does that in captivating fashion.

Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 402-473-7244 or

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