Unfolding the political view from Kansas

For an engrossing visit to another world — one that doesn’t involve 3-D glasses and whose name is Wichita — “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” is the film to see this week.

Based on Thomas Frank’s best-seller, this documentary, with impressive evenhandedness, examines how a state once known for progressive populism became heavily Republican and conservative.

It sharply demonstrates how Republican candidates have exploited religious fervor surrounding issues such as abortion to get poor and middle-class voters to support a party whose overall actions run counter to their economic well-being.

Directed by Joe Winston and unfolding without narration, the film shows a Kansas landscape decidedly under-the-rainbow, with boarded-up storefronts, for-sale homes and ailing farms.

Politically, the tone is fundamentalist and Republican. Voters view Republicans as the Christian party and thus the good guys. They demonstrate more interest in the party’s stance on religiously charged issues such as abortion and gay marriage than in how Republican policies affect their farms.

Democrats are seen as “pro-abortion,” “pro-homosexual” and “evil.”

Three primary subjects put human faces on Kansas mindsets: Angel Dillard, a conservative Christian farmer and anti-abortion activist; Brittany Barden, an 18-year-old religious zealot who campaigns for Republican candidates; and Kansas Farmers Union president Donn Teske, a populist who worries about the fate of farms.

Setbacks occur. Barden’s candidate loses in 2006, echoing the fate of many Republicans that year. Local pastor Terry Fox resigns from his church over his controversial sermons opposing gay marriage and abortion. Fox’s relocation to a theme park results in further tribulation.

It takes time for Frank’s point — that Kansans are giving hot-button “Christian” issues priority over their own economic welfare at the ballot box — to gel. And in its admirable attempt to treat its subjects fairly, the film can seem slightly soft. The generally even-handed film “Jesus Camp” contained a more vivid picture of fundamentalist thinking.

But as it absorbs you in these lives, the film triumphs as an exploration of an exceptionally site-specific place on the U.S. political map and as a look at the problematic but ingrained relationship of religion and politics.

Winston’s three-dimensional treatment of people whose ideas may seem insane to those with Bay Area sensibilities is a plus; the humanity hooks us.

Dillard may come off as a caricature when shown selling plastic babies at the fair, but as we get to know her, she impresses us as someone who has overcome immense personal trauma and worked hard to maintain her farm.

This textured film also contains a segment on the progressive elements of Kansas history; a crusty Kansas sculptor; and a head-shaker of a visit to the Creation Museum.

 

MOVIE REVIEW
What’s the Matter With Kansas?

Three stars
With
Angel Dillard, Brittany Barden, Donn Teske, Terry Fox
Directed by Joe Winston
Not rated
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Note: Director Joe Winston and producer Laura Cohen will attend screenings at 7:20 and 9:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Lumiere, 1572 California St., San Francisco.

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