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Janeane from Des Moines

TIFF 2012 Review

Red Flag Releasing; 77 minutes

Director: Grace Lee

Written by on September 14, 2012 

It’s so easy to take cheap shots at the Tea Party; in fact what Bill Maher can do in a joke or a monologue, Janeane from Des Moines spends 77 minutes doing with the straightforward sincerity of a Grace Lee documentary. Directed by Lee, she dives into “mockumentary” and performance art, the narrative often forced around the issues that surface in the Iowa Republican primary and its various traditions, straw polls and causes.

The problem is it proves what the Tea Party has been saying: the liberal media doesn’t understand us. And now my head is spinning and here is why: I imagine a straightforward documentary on the subject would be very difficult to do. And this isn’t a documentary – spoiler alert, but Janeane from Des Moines is not in the TIFF Docs section, but the TIFF Special Presentations section. But let’s consider that is upholds the documentary principals and that part of the film is a documentary (or a documentation of a performance art project) — can a member of the Tea Party trust the non-Fox News/Rush Limbaugh media?

I think its making, not following the actual plight of a Tea Party member (the Tea Party itself is somewhat fragmented), presents the same problem as Nick Broomfield’s Sarah Palin: You Betcha!,a TIFF documentary from last year. A documentary filmmaker cannot control the narrative of someone that would much rather control his or her narrative. The best parts of this film are when Janeane, a home health care aid who has “liberal” friends, asks a very simple question of all of the Republican candidates running in the various Iowa primary events: what is your stance on health care? The answer from all is robotic, somehow always comingback to Jesus, the free markets and savings accounts. See, if you fire up the free markets and empower the job creators they’ll eventually provide you with health care, or you can go out and buy it. Because that’ll be affordable to someone on the cusp of loosing his or her house who also has a pre-existing condition.

The film attempts to start a conversation and it sure does. This isn’t exactly a “gotcha” type of documentary but a rather sincere political film that shows the diversity of Iowa politics. Janeane (played by Jane Edith Wilson, a self professed liberal in real life) has liberal friends and a husband who seeks “counseling” – again another Tea Party cheap shot coded with sympathy. While it would be a cheaper shot to play it for laughs (and who could resist laughing at footage of Herman Cane quoting Pokémon that Lee inserts between events?), I admire the film in its search for answers. As a narrative holding to the mockumentary conceit it doesn’t work and due to its release strategy it may not be seen as widely as it should (it opens limited in October in New York).

One approach, although problematic is to upload the adventures of Janeane at these rallies into a series of webisodes. Then again there’s James O’Keefe who ruined that one by not telling the truth (the folks that played along did so to report his ‘pimp’ to the police). This one doesn’t have quite the same problems, or does it?

Janeane from Des Moines is screening at TIFF 2012 and hits limited theaters on October 5th.


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