Two Towns, Two Different Worlds

A deep dive into two HIFF docs
City of Joel

Each is an in-depth documentary probing the daily social, professional, and religious lives of the residents of an American town. Other than that, “Monrovia, Indiana” and “City of Joel,” both shown during the Hamptons International Film Festival, could have been shot on two different planets, so dissimilar are the stories of their subjects and the filmmakers’ very approaches. 

“City of Joel,” about Kiryas Joel — “the shtetl up the Hudson,” it has been more kindly called — is an insular Hasidic community where every aspect of life revolves around Jewish law and popular culture has no place. Improbably plopped down in the heart of an Orange County, N.Y., town called Monroe, it was founded by 14 Satmar-sect families in 1977 as a retreat from the growing secularism of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The settlement has exploded over the decades to number well over 25,000 people, three-quarters of whom speak only Yiddish. 

Where Monroe is a sizable township, the coincidentally-named “Monrovia,” directed by Frederick Wiseman, is about a tiny hamlet thousands of miles away in heartland Indiana, where barely over 1,000 people are living a godly 1950s life, made easier by the most powerful modern farm machinery imaginable. The film opens with a long view of white clouds in a pale-blue sky, switches to cornfields, meanders quietly down country roads past houses, churches, and schools, all of which appear to be newly painted, and finally settles on a lay minister who’s promising a small gathering of elderly people that God will set right what they have put wrong. 

The homogeneous population of Monrovia — all white, except for a possibly Asian teenager in a class listening with rapt attention as a policeman recalls the exploits of the high school’s star basketball player — goes about its daily duties with the confidence of folks who know they belong to the land (and that the land they belong to is grand; they like it just the way it is and don’t much like change). Everyone seems to know everyone, or at least everyone’s cousins, and if they don’t they’ll talk, quietly, until they find a connection. People speak to each other slowly, in a beauty salon, a supermarket, a cafe, a pizzeria, a barber shop, an animal clinic, and listen respectfully. 

Nothing much really happens in this movie. Except for the auctioneer at a sale of used combines, where burly men with flat-top haircuts compete to buy machines that run into the hundreds of thousands, these Monrovians hardly ever raise their voices — certainly not at a Lions Club meeting that takes maybe 10 or 15 agonizing minutes to decide where best to donate a bench. The elementary school? The library? (The doc is almost two and a half hours long; no wonder.)

The only hint of controversy comes at a planning board meeting, where residents of a new development called Homestead complain that what they’d thought were fire hydrants when they moved in have turned out instead to be “flush hydrants,” good only for clearing a water line of rust or debris. They’re dependent on tanker trucks for fire protection, they tell the board members, and so they want to be connected to the Monrovia Water Company.

Contrast that quiet portrait of a quiet town with Jesse Sweet’s “City of Joel.” 

In Kiryas Joel (pronounced Yo-EL), despite constructing numerous high-rise apartment buildings to house families that often have eight or more children, the religious community has overflowed the boundaries of its 1.1-square-mile allotment within the rural town.

Rabbis and developers petition the town board to more than double the size of Kiryas Joel, asking to be allowed to annex an additional 507 acres of open land. 

Many of Monroe’s residents, including descendants of original settlers, are appalled, foreseeing not only environmental devastation but the takeover of their local government. Already, they say, Hasids on the school board have funneled state funding into their yeshivas, leaving the public schools short of teachers and needed supplies.

The battle lines are drawn. While the focus is mainly on the Orthodox, with riveting close-ups of enormous wedding crowds and scenes such as the mass baking of chalah for the Sabbath (the filmmaker has said it took him over four months to get the rabbis’ agreement for that segment), the residents of Monroe get their due as well. In the main, they come off as more even-handed than the Hasids, insisting that no, they’re not anti-Semites, just ordinary people fearing for their property values and doing their best to get along with their neighbors. Both sides, though, wind up marching and shouting at each other and at the town board members, who look like they’d rather be anywhere else but in Monroe.