Three Frederick Wiseman Documentaries

Still from Frederick Wiseman's High School
Still from Frederick Wiseman’s High School

Frederick Wiseman is a documentarian who began his career with a controversial film that featured a Massachusetts correctional facility for the criminally insane, Titicut Follies. After receiving permission to shoot the film on “verbal agreement” Wiseman showed up with his cameraman and started shooting footage. Unlike many other documentaries Wiseman presents his footage without any subjective narrative sequence or a guiding narrator, via voice over. Instead Wiseman gives you the opportunity to just observe but that’s not to say that he leaves his voice out entirely.

After Wiseman cut his footage and was preparing to distribute the film he faced several censors who felt he painted an unfair portrayal of the Massachusetts facility. In fact, the film shot in 1967 was banned from being shown in Massachusetts until 1991. If you see the film you’ll understand why. One particularly upsetting scene involves a nude patient being taken out of his room for a shave. During the shave the staff continually harass the patient by repeatedly asking him the same two or three questions. The scene goes on for about fifteen minutes and the patient responds in cycles of ignoring them, giving monotone answers, and shrieking in confusion and anger. Another scene features an emaciated patient being force fed soup through a tube inserted in his nose; however, the scene is intermediately interrupted for close ups of the same patient’s body being prepared for incineration.

After he finished Titicut Follies Wiseman went on to film another documentary about regulated oppression and suffering; he made a film called High School. Much like Follies, High School is presented without a narrator or any narrative. Instead you drift through the halls seeing different scenes of classrooms, staff rooms, and administrative offices. When I said that High School was a documentary about oppression and suffering I wasn’t being facetious. In fact Wiseman’s first three films (Titicut Follies, High School, and Law and Order) use their observations to present the viewer with a kaleidoscopic look at society’s many conflicts focusing on who emerges dominant and who is forced into submission.

In each of his first three films Wiseman includes a scene situated in an office where a person of authority is explaining to someone without authority why they’re in trouble. In High School it almost reads as camp while we watch a skinny and bespectacled student try to talk his way out of showering after gym class. In Law and Order’s opening scene we watch as a police officer explains to a man that he’s been arrested for sexually abusing his son. In Titicut Follies we watch as a doctor explains to his patient that the patient suffers a mental illness even though the patient disagrees. Wiseman is fascinated with autonomy and those who are denied it; or, at least that’s what I came away with.

What makes Wiseman’s films consistently watchable and great to me is his refusal to lead his viewers around by the hand. Wiseman makes his voice clear through how he edits his films, by what he chooses to show us, and what he doesn’t show us. He speaks through the subtler elements of film and otherwise allows the viewer the rare gift of simply observing. He gives his audience the gift of watching without explicit instruction. In some ways Wiseman grants his viewer a certain autonomy that his subjects are so often denied.

Frederick Wiseman has directed over twenty films each of which explore the myriad micro societies that make up our reality. Wiseman’s latest film was 2011’s critically acclaimed Crazy Horse in which he document’s the famous nude Parisian nightclub.

So what do you think? Have you ever seen one of Frederick Wiseman’s films? Can you name another film that lends its viewer autonomy? Please leave some comments or questions below so that we can continue our discussion on being denied autonomy, really depressing documentaries, and how great it feels to be done with high school.

-Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes

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