‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ brings heart and light to FilmScene

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

FilmScene — through July 19; prices vary

Fred Rogers, musician, writer, minister and puppeteer, died in 2003 at the age of 74. — video still

On Wednesday, the fourth of July, I attended the 11 a.m. opening of the new documentary depicting the vision and heart of Fred Rogers, a humanitarian who dedicated 33 years of his life to making television programs — primarily a show called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — before dying on Feb. 27, 2003. The movie itself is largely a collection culled from thousands of hours of the television show interspersed with interviews with Rogers and his family and friends.

I went into the movie as someone who is neither a fan of documentaries in general nor biopics in particular. I stopped watching Mister Rogers by the time I was seven or eight, bored with its slow pacing and poor production values and preferring the wit and banter of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I left this movie feeling like it was one of the most important, most beautiful and most inspiring pieces of art I had ever witnessed.

The movie begins with Rogers playing the piano and discussing the question of modulation as an analogy for how to best help children, which deftly introduces the range of Rogers’ brilliance (music, philosophy, pedagogy, care) and also his ability to laugh at himself. The question at the heart of the movie comes in an interview a few moments later: Was Rogers’ desire to influence America successful?

The movie wisely does not contextualize this question in terms of contemporary American politics, although being asked this question on Independence Day — as the question of immigrant children being taken from their parents while other children are still being shot in schools — made the stakes clear.

Practically, of course, one assumes that director Morgan Neville understands the particular stakes of the question are less important than the need to ask it. The movie features many challenges that arose during the filming of the series, including a first week that focused on authoritarianism and specials that discussed assassination and other tragedies, and the way that Rogers dealt with the subjects honestly and appropriately.

The success of the show — and the movie — is its honesty. Just as the puppets in the neighborhood are never presumed to be anything other than puppets, so also are problems allowed to be problems. Rogers early on says that conflict is important: The lesson of the show is that learning how to deal with the persistence of conflict and confusion is more important than resolving one particular problem. Problems will continue.

A second thread of the film depicts the insistent uniqueness of Rogers’ vision and how he fused his intelligence and talents to bring into being a world — a neighborhood — that would never has existed without him. This not only meant spending a lifetime composing music, writing scenes and dialog, acting and performing puppetry, but it also required Rogers to defend the need for public television as a whole.

Rogers’ vision is of a world where children are human, worthy of attention and respect. The audacity of this vision and the courage that it took to perform it are hinted at, especially in contrast to other forms of children’s programming. The quiet quest to make goodness attractive will perhaps inevitably raise the ire of authoritarians and capitalists — but this, the movie suggests, makes such a quest even more necessary.

The movie shows a third thread in celebrating Rogers’ particular weirdness, which found its way into the neighborhood in a multitude of ways. Rogers was a man who knew himself and therefore could create a world that was needed by the most vulnerable around him — children — who could sense his solidity and thus trust his gift. Showing Rogers swimming, laughing at the pranks of the crew, playing piano — all of these helped to show that what makes Rogers believable as a figure of love is his ability to integrate all he is and present it openly and vulnerably to others, including adults, musicians, children and strangers.

In some ways, the movie shows Rogers as a kind of Bartleby, preferring not to live the way the world wants; creating actively rather than sitting passively. What I most appreciated about the decision to ask the question and focus exclusively on the three decades of Rogers’ career is that it allowed the movie to become its own work of art.

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‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ ran on public television from 1968 until 2001. — video still

What does it mean to be a neighbor, in a world of ICE raids and increasingly overt racism? One suggestion implicitly offered by the movie deals with the change from television (which is broadcast or streamed into the privacy of one’s home) to movies (which are watched alongside others). I began crying, while smiling, about 10 minutes into the movie. I heard sniffles and stifled sobs around me throughout the show, which allowed me to feel comfortable weeping openly the entire time despite simultaneously smiling at the example of unabashed, undaunted goodness.

The fact that the movie succeeds in inviting tears is a testament to its attempt to continue Rogers’ vision. There’s something beautiful in being told that you are loved and accepted by a man of dignity and integrity, even if the words were recorded years ago. There’s beauty in someone who recognizes and acts on the utter importance of each individual human person he meets. There’s a beauty in slowness, in make believe, in music, in kindness, in gentleness. Other kinds of tears emerge also — the fact that such a man no longer lives, that the message of love could inspire cruelty and hate.

The movie does not dwell in darkness, and it does not moralize more than Rogers would have. Nothing is distilled down to a handy sound bite. In this way, the movie faithfully encapsulates Rogers’ vision. It offers the example of someone who was willing to live honestly, with empathy. It invites audiences, neighbors, to become vulnerable in public and weep at the presentation of goodness without the sort of cloying emotional manipulation that passes as personal in our commodity culture. It also inspires audiences to become neighbors in the largest possible way — that of Mr. Rogers, who devoted his life to advocating for the most vulnerable in each of his actions, whether large or small.

A map in the FilmScene lobby will allow attendees to plot their location and how how many folks from their neighborhood. — photo by FilmScene’s Andrew Sherburne

FilmScene does the Iowa City community a service in hosting a series of neighborhood screenings, meant to bring together the kinds of communities and neighborhoods that Rogers envisioned — spaces where adults can articulate compassion without demanding control, spaces where one can sit in silence rather than be entertained, spaces of safety and acceptance for when the larger world seems to be threatening and dangerous.

Throughout the course of the film’s run, FilmScene’s neighborhood screenings (schedule below) offer discounted tickets for specific neighborhoods. There will also be a pre-show gathering in the lobby prior to each showing. Neighborhood representatives will be present at each to offer local updates. There’s a map of Iowa City and the surrounding area on the wall, for all attendees to note their location with a sticker. Free treats will also be provided.

See the movie with your neighborhood. See it with a friend. See it with strangers. Expand your idea of what a neighborhood can be, and what your role in creating a neighborhood might entail. Goodness does not always require genius, but it does require presence and persistence. We cannot all be Fred Rogers, but the movie reminds us that we all have the possibility of accepting and becoming ourselves. The question at the heart of the movie, ultimately, is answered one screening, one neighborhood, and one viewer at a time.

Neighborhood Screenings

Friday, July 6 at 6 p.m. — Downtown
Saturday, July 7 at 1 p.m. — Shimek, Hickory Hill & Goosetown
Saturday, July 7 at 3:30 p.m. — Northside, Morningside/Glendale & Bluffwood
Sunday, July 8 at 1 p.m. — Eastside, Wash. Hills, Windsor Ridge & College Green
Sunday, July 8 at 3:30 p.m. — Melrose, Miller/Orchard, Weber, Harlocke & University Heights
Monday, July 9 at 6 p.m. — Peninsula, Manville Heights, Normandy & Longfellow
Thursday, July 12 at 6 p.m. — Oak Grove, Lucas Farms & Creekside
Saturday, July 14 at 3 p.m. — Wetherby, Grant Wood, Pepperwood, Broadway, Hilltop & Paddock
Tuesday, July 17 at 6 p.m. — Walnut Ridge, Galway Hills, Country Club, Southwest & West High
Wednesday, July 18 at 7 p.m. — Bryn Mawr, Ty-n-Cae, Penny Bryn, West Side, Mormon Trek & Willow Creek