When Americans talk politics these days, it’s almost impossible to avoid the subject of President Donald Trump. And that can be a problem.
Trump’s personality and policies are both so polarizing that other subjects, or approaches to them that don’t reference Trump, are often not even broached.
Trump himself might well like it that way. But Pittsburgh-based filmmakers John Miller and David Bernabo didn’t think it was the best approach to “Moundsville,” their documentary about a small West Virginia town about an hour southwest of Pittsburgh.
Miller first encountered Moundsville in 2011, while covering the coal industry for The Wall Street Journal. He later envisioned a documentary that, while necessarily set in the Trump era, would dig deeper into what made the town tick than the fact that its voters went solidly for Trump in 2016. “Moundsville” debuts in Pittsburgh Thursday, at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
“As somebody who is American but grew up overseas, I’m fascinated by places that tell you a bigger story about this country,” says Miller, who lived most of his life in Belgium.
Why Moundsville? Though small, it’s in some ways a prototypical Rust Belt town. Its 20th-century economy was built on coal-mining and heavy industry, including not only steel and glass-making but one of the world’s biggest toy factories: Marx Toys, makers of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots and the Big Wheel tricycle.
In recent decades the Ohio River town has lost population, from a peak of 15,000 down to about 9,000 today; young people don’t stick around, locals say. And then, for anomaly’s sake, there’s the 2,000-year-old Native American burial mound the town is named for – for Miller, a potent symbol of the inevitability of change.
Miller, now a freelance writer, and Bernabo, a prolific artist, musician and filmmaker, spent about year making “Moundsville.” The 75-minute film features interviews with two dozen residents, from a bank teller and a local historian to a retired teacher and even the vice mayor, Phil Remke (who’s now mayor). Other voices include West Virginia’s poet laureate; a collector of paranormal artifacts whose ancestors helped found Moundsville; and the retiree who was the overwhelmingly white town’s first and only African-American mayor.
Old-timers interviewed recall the town’s heyday, and some have fairly nuanced views on the subject. For instance, when retired boiler operator Les Barker discusses the rise of big-box retail and the decline of Main Street, he says, “I think we the people did this to ourselves. We wanted everything cheaper.”
“Les is the kind of guy that out-of-town reporters might meet at a diner and might spend, you know, three minutes talking to,” says Miller. “And we spent three hours talking to him, and not everything he said was profound and thoughtful. But there are some nuggets in that conversation that really got to a deeper part, a deeper place of conversation with the stereotypical old white guy in Appalachia.”
Still, the past looms large in the film. Take the story of Marx Toy Plant, which runs throughout the film. Miller notes that the factory was initially sold when the owner retired. While it stayed open only a little while longer, its ultimate closure, in 1980, wasn’t about foreign competition, outsourcing or immigrants taking jobs. Rather, at issue was the nature of capitalism.
“At some point people stop buying Big Wheels for their kids or stop buying Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, or they move to video games,” Miller says. “I mean, video games are a reason that the Marx toy plant closed, and what can you do about that? Americans have a hard time accepting that capitalism has this life cycle of creation and destruction.”
Moundsville has diversified, Miller notes. Tourism is big, for instance: The 60-feet-tall Grave Creek Mound is a big draw, as is the shuttered West Virginia Penitentiary. There’s also a fair amount of paranormal tourism – ghost tours, and the like.
Other signs of hope include entrepreneurs like a young couple that’s starting a farm; the laid-off glass worker who now makes glass art; and the high-tech cabinet maker. None of it creates jobs like a steel mill would (though interviewees do share their hopes, and fears, about the region’s gas industry, and a proposed ethane-cracker plant nearby).
But this sort of entrepreneurial revival is “one thing that’s happening in Appalachia that is not talked about enough,” says Miller. “There are young creative people doing different kinds of things, and building a new kind of future. And we’re not going back to the past. One thing the mound reminds us of is that civilizations and cultures do eventually move on, and change is inevitable.”
Speaking of the future of civilization, Miller says that he and Bernabo did ask people in Moundsville what they thought of Trump. The trouble was, the answers were all stuff they’d heard before: “He’s trying to make America great again,” that sort of thing. “It just wasn’t interesting,” says Miller.
Trump’s critics might say that it’s irresponsible not to confront his supporters on issues like racism. “There’s definitely a place for that,” agrees Miller. “But you can’t accomplish everything with every movie or every reporting project.”
Plus, he adds, “If you watch the movie, you learn more in a way that helps you challenge a lot of what Trump says about bringing back jobs” – including Moundsville folks who acknowledge heavy-industry jobs aren’t returning.
Miller and Bernabo are working on getting more screenings for the film. But “Moundsville” debuted, of course, in Moundsville, in December, at the town’s landmark Strand Theatre.
“And so this became like a sort of anthropological experiment,” says Miller. “It’s like, what’s the reaction of these people? And the movie is partly about decline, so I was nervous, like, ‘What if they think we’re, you know, big-city outsiders like we’re going to trash their town?’ And they loved it.”
“They liked the fact that we didn't talk about Trump,” he adds. “They like the fact that we focus on their story, and that we asked people about stuff they knew a lot about.”
“I mean people in Moundsville they watch the news, but they don't know the ins and outs of Washington politics as experts,” he says. “But they do know about like their town, and where it's going, what the gas industry means, what the Wal-Mart means, and all these deeper topics and the fact that we engage them on their level. I think really was exciting to them.”
The film was screening in New York City this week, at the offices of “America” magazine, for which Miller writes, and more screenings in Moundsville are planned. The film is also available on Vimeo.