On Tuesday, March 13, we hosted Benjamin Wagner, the writer & producer of the documentary Mister Rogers & Me, a “deep and simple” film that “explores the roots of Mister Rogers' values of care, decency and love of neighbor.” Click here to learn more about the film.
Benjamin admitted that title of his film was inspired by Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me.” The film’s style also mirrors Moore’s productions, but only in mode, not tone. Wagner’s film is a “charming love letter” (as described by writer Nigel Smith) that honors the values of America’s most beloved neighbor.
Immediately upon his arrival to campus, I whisked Benjamin to the Fred Rogers Center Lab Workshop for an hour-long session with my "Advanced Multimedia Production" students, who had previously screened the movie. An hour sounded too long but felt too short as we discussed the making of the film, his career path/goals and what all of our favorite movies are.
One theme that emerged was his passion for DIY (do-it-yourself), which was a motivational message to the students. One of the students, Dave Geier, has aspirations of being a feature film director. Benjamin told him, "you don't want to be a director. You are a director. Now go and direct." It was this attitude that not only yielded a successful career for Benjamin (he is a Vice President at MTV), but also brought Mister Rogers & Me into fruition.
The film was a labor of love for him and his brother Christofer, who was unable to join us (though I hope to get him to campus someday in the future). Benjamin worked as writer/producer/narrator/tour guide, while Christofer was the primary shooter/editor/driver.
Following our classroom session and a lovely dinner with members of the Fred Rogers Center staff, a couple of students and History professor Dr. Tim Kelly, we held a campus screening of the film as part of the course "Documentary History."
The event was held in our Performing Arts Center, and on our walk towards it, I prepped Benjamin with the disclaimer "the auditorium holds almost 500, so it might look sparsely attended." Benjamin reassured me by saying that the quantity of viewers is not as important as the quality of the viewing.
I was put more at ease when we arrived in the auditorium to hear an audible buzzing of 100+ students and faculty, who took time out of their hectic schedules to slow down, relax and remember what was so great about Mister Rogers.
The evening concluded with yet another hour-long Q&A session with Benjamin, who happily bore his soul to our curious batch of students and faculty. The questions ran deeper than the standard production-themed fare into areas of truth, style and art.
As the evening wound down, Dr. Kelly and I walked him to his guest room in Leander Hall where he had 10 hours to bask in the peace and serenity of our campus on a spring night (it was technically winter, but it felt like spring), before he got back into his rental car, drove to the airport and flew back to his day job at MTV in New York City.
In taking the time to share his film with us, he reminded us exactly what it means to be neighborly, and that is to perform acts that are not obligatory. After receiving a spontaneous gift from another, we often say "you didn't have to do that," and that thought is exactly why such a gesture is so warmly appreciated. Benjamin didn't have to make this film. He didn't have to take a day off of work and come to Latrobe. He didn't have to speak with our students.
But he did. And for that we are very thankful.