Kansas doc opens Tallgrass Film Festival

When Chicago filmmakers Joe Winston and Laura Cohen read "What's Wrong With Kansas?," Thomas Frank's scathing treatise on Kansas conservatism and politics, they knew they had to come to the Sunflower State to find out for themselves.

"We felt that political documentaries had come almost exclusively from the point of view of the coastal cities and we wanted to see what people in the heartland thought," said director and co-producer Winston, an Emmy-nominated TV editor and festival award-winner for 1997's "The Burning Man Festival."

The 90-minute documentary, edited down from 165 hours filmed over four years, will be shown during an opening-night gala Thursday for the 6th annual Tallgrass Film Festival.

Winston and Cohen, who married in 2005, a year after starting the project, will be in Wichita to take questions from the audience after the film. Tickets are $20, which also includes the opening-night party.

The film has been entered in major film festivals from Sundance to Berlin to Tribeca and Toronto and will receive its official world premiere next spring -- well after next month's presidential election.

"We didn't want to rush it out before the election because it isn't about the election," Winston said. "It's about the gulf of misunderstanding between the coastal cities and the heartland. That won't go away anytime soon. The film won't grow stale."

The book put author Frank, a native Kansan who now lives in Washington, D.C., in the national spotlight -- and on the political hot seat -- as he wrote about how the religious right drove working-class and middle-class conservatives in his home state to the Republican Party even as they were the ones most hurt by its economic policies. The book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 37 weeks.

While Frank is interviewed in the film, he did not help make it, filmmakers say. They consider their film a sequel to the book rather than an adaptation of it.

"We did our own research. We hired a college kid to drive us around Kansas to find subjects to film because we'd never been there before. We asked a liberal advocacy group to name their three worst enemies," Winston said.

That led he and Cohen to people like the Rev. Terry Fox (then of Immanuel Baptist Church before breaking away to found his own Summit Church) as well as to his parishioners.

They also met Angel Dillard, a lifelong Republican activist who was handing out anti-abortion literature at the Kansas State Fair. Dillard even named one of her daughters Reagan after her favorite president.

And they talked to fourth-generation farmer Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union, who deplores inequality and greed as "unChristian," and says that he's "a Populist without a party."

Winston and Cohen say they tested the film on focus groups and were pleased that viewers detected no bias.

"There is no narration or commentary," Winston said. "The people tell their own stories in their own voices. We found some surprising contradictions. Seemingly liberal people had conservative values and vice versa. You can't just break Kansans into two camps like politicians want because it's meaningless and divisive."

"What surprised me," said Cohen, who admits that she and her husband would probably be considered liberal by Kansas standards, "is that I liked the people so much. The media tends to represent conservative Christians in shrill tirades, but it was wonderful to see how we are more alike than different."

Added Winston: "I get cranky with the so-called mainstream media that considers the heartland all alike. When we spent time in Kansas, we could see that doesn't apply. Kansas has a turbulent political history, from John Brown to Populism to becoming the national epicenter of the antiabortion movement with the Summer of Mercy. But we found Kansans smart, warm and with a wide range of opinions. Kansas is truly the heart of America and the nation will not make progress without taking its people into account."

If You Go

"What's the Matter With Kansas?"

What: A 90-minute documentary to kick off the 6th annual Tallgrass Film Festival

Where: Warren Old Town Theatre, 353 N. Mead in Old Town

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: $20, available at WichitaTix: 316-219-4TIX. Includes Q&A with filmmakers Joe Winston and Laura Cohen and opening night party at Rock Island Studios in Old Town Plaza