The documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is about public TV’s Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
The late children’s show host doesn’t seem like a terribly dynamic film subject, but Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom,” “Best of Enemies,” “The Music of Strangers”) became interested in Rogers’ “radical kindness.”
“Kindness doesn’t get a lot of airtime in our culture today,” he said when the movie screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival. “It’s not sexy, and it’s a lot easier to manipulate people — or make money off of people — with fear or anger or hatred, than it is kindness. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not important.”
The idea for the movie came to Neville when he was having lunch with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the subject of the “The Music of Strangers.” Neville asked Ma how he learned to be a famous person, and Ma replied, without thinking, “Mister Rogers taught me.”
The filmmaker began researching Rogers, including listening to commencement addresses he gave, and came to a conclusion.
“This is a voice I don’t hear anywhere, anymore. He was incredibly non-judgmental, which feels revolutionary, where our culture is so full of judgment. I just wanted to spend time with that voice, and give platform to that voice,” says Neville.
Many scenes in the movie illustrate Rogers’ kindness, curiosity and compassion, as well as a general openness; its makes the viewer wonder if he was like that.
“He was. All the time,” says Neville. “Everybody in Pittsburgh has a story about Fred Rogers. I’d tell people what I was working on, and everybody I talked to, like a cab driver, said, ‘You’d better not screw this up. Don’t tell me Fred Rogers had a dark side.’”
Neville found Rogers to be even more impressive off camera than on. He constantly struggled with the fear that he wasn’t doing enough. “It means that it didn’t come easy. We all have to work hard to be good,” Neville says.
The movie shows Rogers’ famous puppet Daniel Tiger — a clear and powerful alter-ego for Rogers — getting people to open up, or to “melt,” as Neville describes it.
During editing, Neville was considering switching a line of Daniel’s dialogue from one scene to another, being momentarily concerned that the voice wouldn’t sync with the lips. Then he and his crew suddenly realized: Daniel was a sock puppet. His lips didn’t move.
“It didn’t even occur to us, because he’s so… alive. You imagine him talking, even if you don’t see him talking,” he says.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” rises to a level of profundity as Neville asks interviewees to try something that Rogers often asked people: Take a moment and think about someone who helped you become who you are.
The film shows the interview subjects, one after another, for several seconds, in complete silence, thinking of their special people. It’s overpowering.
“I didn’t know if that was going to be in the film, and I certainly didn’t know it was going to be the ending,” says Neville. “What I didn’t want to do with the film is tie it up neatly in a bow. I wanted to ask some questions and hold up a mirror.”
“I think that’s what Fred would do,” he continues. “I hope, when you come out of the movie, you’re left thinking about how you may participate in perpetuating radical kindness.”