THE WISEMAN OF DOCUMETARY CINEMA

by Amir Naderi

Frederick Wiseman started out his adult life as a professor of law. Then a remarkable thing happened at the age of 37: he became a revolutionary. Oh, not a political revolutionary. But still a person who changed the way we live or the way we look at life. Think of Jackson Pollock, Dylan Thomas, Mies Van der Rohe, Roberto Rossellini, Dziga Vertov. Life was never the same after they appeared on the scene. And yes, the documentary film form and how we preceive life was neverthe same after Federick Wiseman became a documentary film maker.

Up until then the documentary had progressed in terms of style and personality as any art form. The artist usually started with a script developed around a premise. It was usually narrated. There were interviews and behind the scenes looks at how the documentry was made. Of course, the artist put his or her own stamp on the medium. But generally most artists work within a definition of their art. Only a few who are truly gifted or touched see the possibility of where ultimately the form can take them. Or how the form can bestretched to accomodate their personality and artistic vision. Wiseman changed the paradigm. It wasn’t a change in terms of personality and style – although that was a part of it – but a change to the form in terms of how a documentary is made.

He was also a modernist. He had a strong belief in the notion of formand function. Because of his approach to making a documentary heallowed the form to follow its function. The situation, the subject and not pre-conceived notions or biases determined what he filmed. He simply allowed the material to determine the form – the final cut of the film.

1963 saw the release of Wiseman’s first documentary, COOL WORLD. And 45years and 38 films later he is still breaking the paradigm with suchfilms as: TITICUT FOLLIES(1967; HIGH SCHOOL(1968); HOSPITAL (1970); WELFARE (1975); MISSILE ( 1987); BALLET (1995) and STATE LEGISLATURE (2006). But his first and one of his most successful documentaries TITICUT FOLLIES is a good example of the Wiseman method.

The subject of TITICUT was the Bridgewater State Mental Hospital inBridgewater, Massachusetts. The subject of menatal hospitals, theirpatients and how patients are treated has been dealt with before. Butthe subject was the jumping off point for Wiseman’s revolution.

Wiseman’s style has always been linked to what the film community and criticscall “direct cinema” or “observastional mode”. Others groupedit into the french school of “cinema verite’ in which structureseems to be deconstructed and the camera acts as if it is just“hanging around’(Wisemen’s own words). Although Wiseman waslinked to other respected pioneers in the field; the Mayslesbrothers, D.A. Pennbaker and Richard Leacock, he was personally verydismissive of these labels. As with many artist, he wanted to makedocumentaries and wasn’t worried where they would sit in terms ofthe film history or his place in an artistic movement.

In TITICUT FOLLIES, his goal was to explore a mental institition with acamera and crew. And to be fair to all concerned. That is patients,doctors and attendants. Why Bridgewater State? Because he was givenpermission – simple as that. Although Massachusetts was known to havea terrible situation in their mental hospitals, he was not going tohop the fence and do a gerrilla shoot on their grounds and say, HaHa! Got you! As he said, he wanted to be fair to all concerned. Hehad no preconceived notions of what to expect. And what should bedome to say, “correct’ any possible injustices. He didn’t bring along any axes to grind before the public. In his “fairness”approach he hoped to raise the conscience of his audiences.

Also to keep his audiences interested he realized that his films needed adramatic structure. Oh, not the same type of structure of an actionadventure film or a romantic comedy with a developed story line,character arcs and plot points. No. Wiseman thought in more humbleand “revolutionary” terms. His dramatic structure was based on a“rhythm”.

Part of his process of making a documentary was to shoot about 100 hoursof footage. And that the crux of his approach was in the editing. Inthe editing he created the film. He created his bias. That’s why herejected the the terms cimema verite or direct cinema because therewas a bias to his work in what images he allowed to make the finalcut. But he was also concerned with the dramatic structure of hisfilm. And that was determined through a pacing, a sense of rhythmthat built in terms of shot sequences to create a pulse that wouldcaptivate the audience and hold their interest.

He also eschewed the use of narration in his work. He preferred to letthe audience find out what they wanted from the film and not tellthem what they were looking at and how they should feel about it.There were also no interviews, again that leads the audience to wherethe film maker may want them to go. Nor were there any behind thescenes looks at how the film was made which is very typical of thedocumentary. He tried to remain pure and simple on the surface toallow audiences to enter his world of film making, experience asiuituation and decide what to do about it without being coerced witha piece of propaganda.

Even though he was considered by many to be a social critic, he was notdogmatic about the message of his films. In fact many of his filmsremained open to interpretation. When asked about his personalinfluences he listed Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Buster Keaton,Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx. It seems his influences would bemore entertainment than dogma.

Wiseman set up difficult barriers in his process of making documentries.Without a prenise going into filming he left an awful lot to chance.But that chance was his journey into a process of discovery thatwould surprise him as well as his audience.

He also didn’t tell the audience how to feel. He just asked them tofeel. And didn’t exactly ask the audience to take up arms no matterthe form it might take. But he made it uncomfortable for them to sitin their seats.

As with any artist he presented his audience with a view of the world.And as with any revolutionary, he asked them to do something aboutwhat they have seen.

Long live the revolution. Long live Fredrick Wiseman! At the age of 79he’s still making films. Keep going. Why not! Cut!