A documentary festival can feel like an exercise in resisting hopelessness. Films on refugees, cruel research experiments, income inequality, murder — it’s difficult not to walk around feeling like the world is a terrible place. In the Full Frame line-up, a documentary about the creator and host of a children’s television show was a much-needed island of hope. The Saturday morning showing of Won’t You Be my Neighbor was sold out.
Fred Rogers started the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood series in 1968. An ordained minister who studied child development, Rogers hosted the show and with straightforward language, puppets, and songs sought to help children cope with the everyday difficulties of childhood feelings: feeling left out, anger, fear. The show also addressed current events, with episodes touching on the Vietnam War (“There’s no need to be afraid until someone starts shooting,” X the Owl tells Henrietta Pussycat), Robert Kennedy’s assassination (“What’s ‘assassination’?” Daniel the Striped Tiger asks Lady Aberlin), and pool desegregation, where Mr. Rogers invites African-American Officer Clemmons to join him while he soaks his feet in a plastic kiddie pool.
Through interviews with Rogers’ family, friends, actors, and Neighborhood production crew members, director Morgan Neville examines Fred Rogers and the making of his show. We learn that Rogers based many of the characters in the Neighborhood of Make Believe on people in his life: his wife inspired Queen Sara Saturday; his sister, Lady Elaine Fairchilde; and, Daniel Striped Tiger speaks for Rogers himself. Woven between interviews, archival footage and clips of the show, is a cartoon tiger representing Rogers through his sickly childhood, love of reading, and the doubts that plagued him as an adult.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor presents a loving portrait of Fred Rogers, emphasizing his sense of humor and deep concern for children. The theater echoed with sniffles, perhaps from nostalgia, or perhaps from the overwhelming amount of tenderness in the moments Neville highlights, including a graduating college student breaking down as she tells Rogers how much he meant to her, stories from friends and family, and a shabby, striped tiger puppet disarming both children and grown men.
For an hour and half, Won’t You Be My Neighbor silences the noise of the daily news cycle, wrapping the audience in the blanket of warmth and kindness that is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The documentary inspires us to be better, to slow down, and maybe to call someone we love.