Frederick Wiseman: An Appreciation

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Guest blogger Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site almost a decade ago as a resource and outlet for documentary media. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.

High School, a documentary directed by Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2010. After almost 50 years of making documentaries, Wiseman is a master of the form and of the business.

Wiseman’s style of documentary making is, in my phrase, “stubbornly observational.” His making process involves capturing footage on location, using the camera to observe the everyday activities as they happen, and then spending a long time editing the footage into the final piece. He resists packaging the documentary’s meaning into a single, summary phrase, and he eschews all the markers that might assist viewers in understanding the events revealing themselves on the screen, particularly voiceover narration, interviews, staging, and even titles. Viewers of his works must immerse themselves in the world unfolding before them with equal degrees of curiosity and patience, for his work is not infotainment. Viewing his films requires work, but the rewards are immense.

Wiseman has focused almost exclusively on social and cultural institutions during his career. The titles of his works get right to the point: High School (1968), Law & Order (1969), Welfare (1975), Basic Training (1971), and Hospital (1969). His production style brings us right into the heart of each institution, its operations, and its functions, but it does so through various moments that otherwise might just happen without notice from other people or from a camera. For example, in High School we witness a girl’s class getting etiquette lessons. In Hospital, a drug overdose patient violently vomits throughout the treatment room, filling the floor with his stomach contents. The camera remains focused on the patient, forcing us into a disturbing witnessing of the excess and not allowing us to turn away. In Near Death (1989), a patient quietly slips out of life, unnoticed by people but not by the camera.

High School, a documentary directed by Frederick Wiseman

From Frederick Wiseman’s
High School

This approach allows a quiet, seemingly unobtrusive look inside, but Wiseman’s choices of subject and their representations have created some controversy. The one drawing the most attention was Titicut Follies (1967), which went inside the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and graphically revealed the “treatment” of the patients therein. As part of their care, patients suffered force-feeding, unnecessary nakedness, squalid conditions, and numerous other indignities. The title refers to a variety show staged within the institution that creates a sharp, ironic relief to the horrific other scenes. The juxtaposition elicits not humor, but shock, at the contrasts. Titicut Follies was banned for more than 20 years, though a later court decision allowed selected screenings to specific audiences. It eventually received recognition as protected speech in 1989, thus lifting the ban and allowing general audiences to see it.

Documentary historians describe Wiseman’s work as “direct cinema,” “cinéma vérité,” or “observational cinema,” but in an interview, Wiseman took exception to these terms. Instead, he claims, “My films are a report on what I’ve learned.” He acknowledges that a report still requires a degree of selection and arrangement of materials, and he explains how another person with the same material would see something else, advocating for documentary subjectivity and rejecting its objectivity.

In addition to a unique form, Wiseman maintains a strong business sense and presence. While long-term relationships between makers and media institutions are rare today, particularly for documentary makers, Wiseman has maintained a relationship with PBS for most of his career. His documentaries have aired on PBS for decades, though not always in the primetime slots due to content and local station programming choices. I remember staying up until 1 AM just to see Domestic Violence (2001) on PBS in Southeast Ohio years ago.

Wiseman also makes the festival circuit. His more recent works, such as Boxing Gym (2010) and La Danse – Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (2009), earned praise through festivals. His most recent release, Crazy Horse (2011), premiered at the Venice Film Festival and showed at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he also conducted a well-received master class. About a nude cabaret club in Paris (which, interestingly enough, the TIFF Web site calls a “cinéma vérité look”), Crazy Horse will appear in cinemas in January 2012. Wiseman will turn 82 that month.

Today’s documentary distribution environment includes a combination of self-distribution, hybrid distributions, and established distributors. Some directors pursue these maze-like paths, but Wiseman established Zipporah Films in 1971 to distribute his own works. Almost all of his titles are available to multiple audiences, from educational institutions to private consumers, with DVD and 16mm the medium options. Both La Danse and Boxing Gym are available through Amazon for those who prefer that convenience, and, fittingly, La Danse is even available on Blu-Ray.

Wiseman left a legal and teaching career to enter documentary making in 1967, and he has quietly forged a different career exploring the social and cultural institutions that shape or have shaped various people’s lives ever since. His films capture an institution, making it both time-bound and timeless at the same time. High School, for example, shows just how much and how little secondary education has changed between the 1960s and today. Wiseman’s “reports” on these institutions, and his philosophies behind making them, hold an important place in documentary history and in contemporary documentary production.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.