profile by Jaap Mees
One of the golden rules of film-making is : show don’t tell. Whenever there is a filmmaker who follows this rule, it is the American documentary- maker Frederick Wiseman (1930), who is mainly interested in the Institutions that form our lives, like ‘High School' (68), the Army ‘Basic Training’ (71) and ‘Juvenile Court’ (73), to name a few. He doesn’t use any form of narration and doesn’t interview the people he portrays. In last October’s Guardian interview with writer and programmer Deac Rossell in the NFT, Wiseman said: “he doesn’t want to break the thread between the subject and the viewer.” That doesn’t mean he disapproves of these techniques, but he prefers to make his documentaries that way. For him the shooting of the film is the research. In that sense comparable to Mike Leigh, who discovers his films by making them. One of Wiseman’s favourite documentaries is ‘Hotel Terminus’ by Marcel Ophuls, who does a lot of interviewing in this film, about the trial of former Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie.
After studying Law at Harvard University, Wiseman was drafted in to the army, and after his discharge, he moved with his wife to Paris, where he studied and practised Law for some time. After making some documentaries on 8mm of Parisian street scenes and markets, Wiseman bought the rights to Warren Miller’s novel about delinquent youth in Harlem. He produced ‘The Cool World’ which was directed by Shirley Clarke.
In 1967 Frederick Wiseman directed, produced and edited his first documentary ‘Titicut Follies’, a perceptive and uncompromising observational study of the Bridgewater Hospital for the “criminally insane” in Massachusetts. The film was very well received by the critics, but the authorities banned it for no less than 24 years! The documentary shows the inhumane way the patients are treated like medieval prisoners: locked up naked in bare, dirty cells and humiliated time and again, both by their guards and in a more subtle, polite contemptuous way by the Doctors and other higher educated staff. There are some observations which cut straight through your soul: in one scene an old inmate is singing in his cell to music coming from an old black and white Hollywood film on television. His so called happy singing contrasts sharply with the horrendous circumstances he lives in. In another scene a man is watched through the peephole in the door, he doesn’t speak but only manages to utter some desperate cries and screams. When the guards force him to get washed, he utters disjointed sounds in a furious way. Another “patient” doesn’t want to eat anymore and is than connected to a funnel with a tube attached, which is stuffed in to his nose. The doctor who feeds him, smokes casually a cigarette in the meantime. And it is exactly this screaming indifference, which is so awfully shocking.
Then there is a prisoner, who comes across very intelligent and articulate, asking the reasonable question: “why do you give me drugs all the time, when what I need is help.” The doctor reacts by giving him more tranquillisers. The title comes from the cabaret show “Titicut Follies”, performed by the prisoners (sadly faced) and guards (forced jolly), which opens and closes this extremely powerful and important film.
French filmmaker Jean Rouch said in the documentary book ’Imagining Reality’ by Mark Cousins and Kevin Macdonald, that he reacted to this film with horror.
Because: “Finally it’s a film of despair. ( …) it’s a totally negative certified report about a situation….” There isn’t any guiding hand. ‘Titicut Follies’ could perhaps be interpreted as a cynical and sadomasochistic report.”
I totally disagree with that, the images Wiseman selects and shows are so tremendously strong as they are, that a commentary only would diminish that power.
It’s no use to overstate an accusation.
Frederick Wiseman calls his documentaries “reality fictions”. In the above mentioned book he says: “Documentaries are thought to have the same relation to social change as penicillin to syphilis. The importance of documentaries as political instruments for change is stubbornly clung to, despite the total absence of any supporting evidence.
(…) Documentaries like plays, novels, poems, are fictional in form and have no measurable social utility.”
Frederick Wiseman who made 31 films so far is definitely one of the most remarkable and brilliant documentarists of his times. His last film, made in ’99, is a portrait of the New England town community in Belfast, Maine (USA.) If you can only see one documentary in your life, make sure it is TITICUT FOLLIES!