The story of the making of the Moundsville film on PBS, the oral history of an American post-industrial town in West Virginia– and why it doesn’t talk about Trump.
The religion of the majority of Americans commands them to love their neighbor, but that can feel impossible for Christians in an age of bitter political polarization. That might be one reason that, in Fratelli Tutti, his 2020 encyclical, Pope Francis uses the word “neighbor” 39 times.
“Jesus asks us to be present to those in need of help, regardless of whether or not they belong to our social group,” he wrote, continuing in paragraph 81:
The Samaritan became a neighbor to the wounded Judean. By approaching and making himself present, he crossed all cultural and historical barriers. Jesus concludes the parable by saying: “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). In other words, he challenges us to put aside all differences and, in the face of suffering, to draw near to others with no questions asked. I should no longer say that I have neighbors to help, but that I must myself be a neighbor to others.
America is divided along many lines, but one of the thorniest in 2022 is the political. According to a Pew Research survey, only one out of five Republicans and Democrats believes that their opponent shares the same “core American values and goals.”
That’s why one of the biggest questions for Americans in 2022 is this: How do we love our political enemies as neighbors?
In 2016, I found myself in Pittsburgh, covering mining and the steel industry for the Wall Street Journal. I found the anger, confusion, and fear rippling through the culture overwhelming. On the precipice of turning 40, I was also going through a personal crisis of vocation and meaning. Deep inside, a voice was whispering that it was time to do another kind of work. When, right before the election, the Journal offered buyouts, I knew it was time to leave one of the best jobs in journalism, a position that had taught me the craft and sent me chasing stories to six continents and over 40 countries. It was a heartbreaking choice, but one that felt necessary.
For a time, I considered a religious vocation, but was set straight by a wise abbot in a monastery in the south of Belgium. “You need to go back to what you know,” he said. “Keep doing journalism, but do it in a different way, and make yourself happy doing that first.”
The Spirit was moving. Poking around for creative projects, I started driving to Moundsville, a small town on the Ohio River 75 minutes from Pittsburgh, to talk to people. The town of 8,400 had gone for Trump by over 70%. When I met filmmaker Dave Bernabo and caught his interest, we put together a proposal to tell the story of Moundsville in a documentary. We received a $4,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Arts Council.
I thought that town was a perfect place to tell a deeper story about America because it’s built around a 2,200-year old Native American burial mound, it harbored a glorious industrial age including the world’s biggest toy factory (Marx Toys, maker of Rock’em Sock’em Robots!), and it now subsists on a service-based economy anchored by a Walmart. There’s also a lot of pain and grief in Moundsville. In a generation, the town lost 8,000 jobs. The population halved. Young people left for Pittsburgh and New York.
David and I spent most of 2018 driving down to Moundsville and interviewing people. At the end of each interview, we’d ask a question about Trump and national politics. Almost always, the answers lacked depth. It dawned on me: These people didn’t know about Trump. They didn’t live in DC. They weren’t very thoughtful about politics. But when we asked them about their work lives and their parents’ work lives, they engaged with depth and wisdom. Those questions, I realized, were actually loving. Almost always, I decided, asking about Trump simply wasn’t loving.
After experimenting with a voiceover, we opted to tell the story without a so-called “voice of God” as narrator. The movie is an oral history, without any academics or outside experts.
To be sure, it’s crucial to fight authoritarian nationalists in the political arena, expose their corruption, and beat back their lying language and false ideas. I’m not shy about calling out the threat of fascism. But Washington, DC is not my beat. And when you’re talking to ordinary people, usually you’re not in the political arena, and you’re not Woodward and Bernstein, and you’re not Christopher Hitchens debating John Lennox about the existence of God. What most people need in any given moment is kindness and curiosity, not a lesson in politics or history.
In our interviews, we heard about grief a lot, but we also heard and told tales of resilience, from a back-to-the-land farming couple, a small manufacturer of kitchen cabinets, and the leaders of a burgeoning tourism sector. The ancient burial mound looming above the town is a daily reminder that civilizations ebb and flow, and that time moves only forward. My hope is that we acknowledged grief in a healing way while pointing the way forward with stories of hope and perseverance.
In December 2018, we premiered Moundsville in the town itself, a practice of sharing work that anthropologists recommend. Over 170 people showed up. A few grumbled about our portrayal of segregation in the film, but at the end, we received an ovation.
A month later, we screened at America, the Jesuit magazine I had started writing for, in New York City, on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan across the street from News Corp., home of the Wall Street Journal.
We screened regionally in 2019, and in 2020, got a deal to appear on PBS. Because projects are typically funded at the beginning, PBS wasn’t able to offer any money. But that’s ok. I was proud that our $4,000 film would get a national audience and be available for screening on 338 PBS affiliates around the country. A friend nicknamed our Moundsville: “The Little Movie That Could.”
This year, because of West Virginia and Joe Manchin being in the news, I’ve relaunched a publicity tour of Moundsville. The film has captured people’s interest. Our website registered 19,098 views in January, up from 10,761 in December.
To my surprise–and gratitude–the movie holds up. People appreciate its openness and listening attitude. “This amazing project reflects a diversity of stories that I needed to experience to remind me of hope and resilience and kindness,” wrote Anupama Jain, head of a Pittsburgh diversity training group, on Twitter.
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes,
‘Opening up to the world’ is an expression that has been co-opted by the economic and financial sector and is now used exclusively of openness to foreign interests or to the freedom of economic powers to invest without obstacles or complications in all countries. Local conflicts and disregard for the common good are exploited by the global economy in order to impose a single cultural model. This culture unifies the world, but divides persons and nations, for ‘as society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors, but does not make us brothers’.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned making and showing Moundsville is that every place carries an organic placeness that deserves respect for its uniqueness. You can find wisdom and thoughtfulness in people when you engage them over that place and recognize its differences from your place. We can’t love our neighbors as brothers and sisters if we expect them to be just like us.
Image: “Moundsville” film poster, courtesy of the author.
John W. Miller is a Pittsburgh-based writer and filmmaker. He's a contributing writer at America Magazine and Daily Yonder, and founder and editor of Moundsville, an online magazine. Born in Brussels and fluent in French, John was a staff reporter at the Wall Street Journal from 2004 to 2016.