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Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman, one of the most accomplished documentarians in the history of the medium, is the recipient of this year’s Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

In a career spanning almost half a century, Frederick Wiseman has produced, directed and edited 38 films. His documentaries comprise a chronicle of American life unmatched by perhaps any other filmmaker. He has turned his lens—and the formidable social and cinematic intelligence behind it—on such subjects as the U.S. military (Basic Training, Manoeuvre), state politics (State Legislature), the social welfare system (Welfare, Public Housing), animal research (Primate), commerce (The Store), end-of-life care (Near Death), sport (Boxing Gym), pop culture (The Garden), the fine arts (Ballet, La Danse), and countless other subjects. All of Wiseman's films have aired on PBS, one of his primary funders. Most recently, La Danse aired on the network in June of 2010. Wiseman’s films are distributed by his own Cambridge, Massachusetts-based production company, Zipporah Films. His work is currently the subject of a year-long retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which recently acquired newly struck prints of thirty-six Wiseman films. His latest film, Boxing Gym, will screen at the New York Film Festival on October 4, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on October 20.

Wiseman is considered a pioneer of the so-called "direct" or "observational" cinema, a label he quibbles with due to the implication that such films provide a transparent window on reality. Wiseman has described his films as “biased, prejudiced, condensed, but fair.” While Wiseman’s documentaries are based on completely un-staged events and contain no interviews or voiceover narration, they are less an objective portrait of reality than an accurate portrayal of the filmmaker’s interpretation of the subject, tempered by a deeply held obligation to be fair to the people who pass before his camera. Wiseman typically does little research before shooting, describing the shooting as the research and the finished film as a report on what he has learned. In between lies up to a year of rigorous and painstaking editing, resulting in documentaries that are equal to the best fiction films.

Wiseman - Titcut Follies
"Titicut Follies" (1967)

Wiseman’s films typically focus on institutions, analyzing their inner workings and dramatizing the conflicts and dilemmas that arise in the course of carrying out their mission. Wiseman’s focus is both the institutions themselves and the people who inhabit them: the social workers and the abuse victims they seek to aid in Domestic Violence; the inmates at the Bridgewater Prison for the Criminally Insane and the doctors and guards who treat them with both cruelty and kindness in Titicut Follies; the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet who undergo rigorous discipline in order to practice their craft at the highest level in La Danse. Wiseman’s films portray the complicated reality of essential institutions, and dramatize how they both succeed and fail to live up to their animating ideals.


David Winn (Director, News & Documentary Emmy Awards): How did institutions come to be the primary focus of your work?

Frederick Wiseman: My first film was Titicut Follies. The subject was the Bridgewater prison for the criminally insane. I knew Bridgewater from field trips I made there with the students I was teaching at Boston University Law School.  While making Titicut Follies I realized that institutions were an unexplored subject in film terms. I then had the idea of doing an institutional series. It seemed that the logical follow up to a prison for the criminally insane was a high school.  Since then I have made a series of movies exploring contemporary American life through institutions important for the functioning of American society.

DW: One consistently remarkable quality of your films is how unguarded people seem in front of your camera. I wonder if that’s one of the advantages of shooting people in institutional settings: you are filming people at work, or otherwise involved in absorbing tasks or situations, and this makes it easier to be themselves on camera.

FW: I think to some extent that’s right, although in my experience when people are involved in activities that are important to them, whether as a worker or a client, they just go about their business and they don’t mind being photographed.  I do not think the camera changes behavior. Most people are more concerned about what’s going on in the immediacy of the moment than they are about being photographed.

Frederick Wiseman
"Near Death" (1989)

DW: Titicut Follies was a relatively controversial film at the time, and was essentially banned for a number of years, correct?

FW: Right, it was banned for about 23 years.

DW: How did that come about?

FW: Bridgewater is a maximum security prison. To make the film I had to get permission from various state authorities including Elliot Richardson who was then the lieutenant governor to whom the commissioner of corrections reported. When the film was finished I showed it to the superintendent at Bridgewater and to Elliot Richardson, who in the intervening year had become attorney general. They both liked the film, and I know that because I was present when they viewed Titicut Follies.  

Titicut Follies was submitted to the New York Film Festival in 1967, and some reviews began to appear. Prior to the screening at the New York Film Festival, a woman in Minnesota read a review in some national magazine and wrote the governor of Massachusetts saying that it was horrible that he allowed a movie to be made that showed a naked man. This was the first that the governor had heard of the movie. The film was a dilemma for Richardson, who had become the attorney general of Massachusetts.  He was torn between supporting the film and attempting to ban it. Richardson was interested in running for governor the next year and decided to move against the film because he thought his political career would be damaged when his role in helping me get permission became known. He applied for a temporary restraining order preventing the film from being shown in Massachusetts, and then he tried, unsuccessfully, to enter that restraining order in New York.

Eventually there was a trial in Massachusetts.  The most important issues at trial were, first, that the film was an invasion of privacy of the man who’s shown naked in his cell, and, second, that I had breached an oral contract giving the state editorial control of the film.  At the time the film was made there was no right of privacy in Massachusetts. The judge, for the first time in Massachusetts history, found a right of privacy to exist.  On the editorial control issue, Richardson simply asserted it. Neither I nor any other filmmaker, unless we were completely mad, would have ceded editorial control to three people who knew nothing about filmmaking.

Frederick Wiseman
"Welfare" (1974)

The judge found the right of privacy to exist for the first time, and decided that I had breached an oral contract giving the state editorial control. The trial judge also described the film as ‘a nightmare of ghoulish obscenities,” and ordered the negative destroyed

The case was appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court which ruled that the film had value, but could only be seen by special audiences consisting of doctors, lawyers, judges, legislators, people interested in custodial care, and students in these and related fields, but not to the merely curious general public. To show the film I had to certify that to my personal knowledge everyone that saw the film was in the allowable class.  This was impossible.  Several years later a new attorney general agreed to modify the order so that if someone wanting to show the film certified to me that the audience consisted of the proper class of people I could rely on that representation without being in contempt of court. And so as a result the film was shown over 2,000 times, but mainly in schools and colleges and public libraries.

In the mid-80’s the original judge in the case died.  There was a headline in the Boston Globe: “Titicut Follies Judge Dead.” I then petitioned the Superior Court in Massachusetts to reconsider the case. A new judge was assigned the case.  He appointed a special master whose job it was to interview the remaining inmates to see if the showing of the film would harm them. He reported that it would not. The judge then decided that I could show the film if I blanked out the faces of the inmates, but I refused. We petitioned the judge to reconsider on First Amendment grounds. He reconsidered, and then said the film was fully protected by the First Amendment—this was in 1989—and the film was finally free to be shown to the general public. I resisted the temptation to put on the marquee when it was shown in Boston, “A Nightmare of Ghoulish Obscenities.”

DW: As a result of all the controversy Titicut Follies was initially perceived as a kind of lurid exposé, and in fact your next two films, High School and Basic Training, were also, I gather, relatively controversial.

FW:  My films are not exposés…

DW: Exactly. Why do you think they were misperceived as such, especially early in your career?

Frederick Wiseman
"Boxing Gym" (2010)

FW: Bridgewater was a horrible place. If you visited Bridgewater for a half an hour you couldn’t help but feel it was a horrible place. I thought the guards at Bridgewater came out reasonably well compared with the so-called helping middle class professionals, who were poorly trained and insensitive to the prisoners. The staff at Northeast High School loved High School when they first saw it. When written reviews appeared, critical of the teaching and values of the high school some of the faculty turned against the film. The superintendent of the schools in Philadelphia always liked the film and praised it. With Basic Training there was no problem with the Pentagon.

DW: Tell us about your latest film Boxing Gym. How did you decide to do a film about boxing?

FW: First, as a sport, boxing has always interested me. Second, a lot of my films are concerned with human violence. Sometimes the subject of the films is the way the state has a monopoly on the use and control of violence. Titicut Follies, Juvenile Court, Law and Order, Domestic Violence are examples of the state sanctioning violent behavior. Basic Training, Manoeuvre, and Missile are examples of the State’s monopoly of violence in order to protect the interests of the state and its citizens. Violence is a theme that is expressed in a variety of ways in many of the films. Boxing obviously is a violent sport, but it’s a controlled, ritualized kind of violence.

I am also interested in how people are taught to control their violent instincts. The man that runs the gym, Richard Lord, is an extremely good teacher. He is not teaching people to be interested in violence for violence’s sake. He’s teaching them how to control their bodies in order to box. In that sense the boxing film is related to the movies I’ve done about ballet, Ballet and La Danse. To become a ballet dancer requires total control over the body, which is similar to the control and discipline required to become a boxer.

DW: There has been a tendency to see your films as about how institutions dehumanize people, but it seems much more complicated than that.

FW: It is

DW: Maybe it’s more accurate to say that your films show how institutions both enable and constrain people, and how sometimes the constraints are themselves enabling. For example in La Danse the rigorous, almost inhuman, discipline the dancers undergo is the thing that allows them to flourish as artists.

FW: Exactly! Dehumanizing is sometimes an overworked and not terribly precise word. It’s a vast generalization. Many of the places I make films about are offering varied and complex services. The competence of the professional staffs performing these services can and does vary widely from excellent to mediocre to incompetent. I think it is superficial and glib to say that by definition institutions are “dehumanizing”.
Many of these services are offered to people in need and various films show the nature of the encounter between the client and the service provider; Welfare, Hospital, Near Death, and Public Housing are examples. In Ballet, La Danse and The Comedie Francaise dancers and actors are shown dedicating their professional lives for the creation of beauty.

Frederick Wiseman
"La Danse" (2009)

My experience with the police is a good example. I made Law and Order In Kansas City, Missouri in 1968, soon after the police had rioted at the Democratic convention in Chicago. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the police were all pigs, particularly among people who had no experience with the police other than speeding and traffic tickets. However, when you ride around in a police car for about twenty seconds, you realize that the piggery is in no way restricted to the police. You see what people do to each other that makes it necessary to have police. In Law and Order you see a very wide range of police behavior. You see police at one extreme being brutal, choking a woman who’s accused of prostitution, but you also see the police doing kind and helpful and useful things. The variety of police behavior is better understood now than it was in 1968. I’m not justifying violent police behavior. I’m just saying police behavior isn’t outside the realm of normal human behavior. The occasional violence of the police is only one of many forms of human violence.

DW: You’re known as one of the pioneers of so-called “direct” or “observational” cinema or “cinema verité.” What, at the time you began making films, was liberating and exciting about that tendency in cinema? Why did you choose to make a film about Bridgewater using observational/direct cinema methods?

FW: I object to those terms. I do not use narration or interviews nor do I stage scenes.  I think this is a much, much fresher way of presenting the material. In this approach there is no obvious barrier (narration or interviewer) between the viewer and the event.  When the technique works, it works because you have a sense of immediacy, you feel like you’re present, observing events as they occur. This is an illusion temporarily created by the editing and structure of the film which gives the viewer the feeling that they are present and witnessing the events seen. This technique makes more of a demand on the viewer by asking them to think through their own relationship to what they are seeing and hearing. This style of filmmaking also makes it possible to suggest the complexity and ambiguity of ordinary experience.

DW: So why do you object to the terms cinema verité and direct/observational cinema?

Frederick Wiseman
"Basic Training" (1971)

FW: Well I think they are meaningless labels. Cinema verité is a pompous French term. I would never claim my films to be the truth. My films are a report on what I’ve learned. Someone else looking at the same events would see things differently. Observational cinema somehow seems to suggest that you just turn the camera on and let things happen in front of you, when in fact all aspects of movies are the result of thousands of choices. The term ‘observational cinema’ excludes the interpretation, selection and dramatic structure inherent in a making a movie. “Fly-on-the-wall” is another degrading phrase that is used. As far as I know a fly is not an intelligent sentient being. I am quite content to have my films called movies.

DW: What is your relationship like with the participants of your films? How do you prepare them for the presence of the camera, and prepare them to act naturally?

FW: Well, I don’t really prepare them to act naturally, because in many ways the worst thing you can do is to say just forget about the fact that a film is being made, since that could make the participants too self-conscious. To the extent that I prepare the participants, I explain to them what I’m doing. I’m very, very direct, because I don’t in any way try to con or bullshit them.  I say, for example, I am going to be at the place for six weeks. I’m going to shoot a lot of film. I don’t know what the themes are going to be until I am well advanced in the editing. I say that during the shooting I am collecting material. And that I arrive at the themes of the film during the long period of editing.  I explain that the final film will be shown on public television, and perhaps will have a limited distribution in theatres and in other countries. I tell them what I know of the making and distribution of the film without any embellishment. I do everything I can to demystify the process.

Frederick Wiseman
"Racetrack" (1985)

DW: You typically spend up to a year or more editing your films. Can you talk about the editing process a bit?

FW: When I come back from a shoot I may have about 120 hours of film. A log is made listing all the shots.  I then look at all the rushes initially rejecting about 50% of the material. I begin to edit the sequences that I think are candidate sequences for inclusion in the final film. That usually takes me six to eight months. At this point I’m not really thinking about the structure, but editing the individual sequences into a useable form.

When I’ve edited all the sequences that I think might make it into the final film, I assemble them into a provisional structure. This first assembly comes out to about 30-40 minutes longer than the final film.  Over the next 4-6 weeks I work on the rhythm and the structure. Sometimes a sequence as originally edited has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then when I place it in relation to other sequences it may no longer need the beginning, because that information has been more adequately covered somewhere else.  I also work on the internal rhythm within a sequence and the external rhythm between the sequences. When I have a version that I am satisfied with I then go back and look at all the rushes again. Often I find a short sequence that I forgot about or a transition that’s better than the one I used, or perhaps there’s an aspect of characterization that I initially rejected that presents someone in a more complex way. At that point I sometimes watch the film two or three times a day, doing little fiddles here and there, and then it’s done. And then I prepare for the mix.

DW: It seems that you are trying to do two things at once in your films: report accurately on the experience of your subjects, and make movies that will outlast their topicality. Is there ever a tension between these two things?

FW:  For me there is no tension between these interests. They both reflect my interest in the complexity and ambiguity of human nature and experience. Human nature hasn’t changed much in at least 10,000 years. The various forms in which it’s expressed may change, but the basic elements seem to be constant. I’m interested in recording the way we live and the form that these enduring characteristics take in the brief period of time in which I’m living and working.