Frederick Wiseman's new film, At Berkeley, will be showing at this year's London Film Festival, in the documentary competition. It marks a welcome return of his work to these shores. Wiseman is one the great documentary film-makers; indeed, I put him at the top of a Top Five list which I did for the Daily Telegraph in 2001 or 2002. I originally wrote this interview, in short form for them in 2000; the longer version which follows was done for Headpress magazine, and is only slightly altered. The hook was Wiseman's appearance at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, to give a masterclass around the debut of his film Belfast, Maine, for which I retain a great deal of admiration. I offer the interview now, because, just as I found Belfast a sort of companion piece to his earlier film Aspen, At Berkeley seems like another film which gets at the heart of America through its education system, as with the two High School films, and what that says about their communities.
FREDERICK WISEMAN: FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN
Thirty-three years ago, when Frederick Wiseman started making the documentary films which shaped our understanding of cinema verite, no one imagined we’d be living in world where fly-on-the-wall filming would engulf us from any and every screen we chose. Reality television, everything from police car chases to the pseudo-reality of Big Brother, captivates viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. Does Wiseman see these programmes as his legacy?
“Actually, I’ve never seen them at all,” he says. “I guess that’s a comment right there. I’m too busy working. But I would hope that I’m in no way responsible. I think these programmes arise simply from the advances in lightweight equipment. The new technology demands to be used for new purposes."
I spoke with Wiseman twice. First from Paris, where he was directing a play at the Comedie Francaise, and then at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, where he presented a masterclass being interviewed by the Guardian’s Derek Malcom. This was followed by a retrospective of his films at London’s National Film Theatre. Such a show was long overdue, because for more than thirty years no one has shone as consistently sharp a light on American institutions as Wiseman. After 31 films, he has become something of an American institution himself.
His first film, TITICUT FOLLIES (1967), set at Bridgewater State Prison for the Criminally Insane, was banned for 24 years in Wiseman’s home state of Massachusetts. “Actually, it put me in a good position,” he says, “because lots of people had heard good things about the film, but for a long time no one had actually seen it!”
Educated at Williams College and Yale Law School, Wiseman says his legal background is a 'bit of a gloss. I never went to class, I read novels for three years. I’d been a clerk/typist in the Judge Advocates office when I was in the service.' He was teaching a course in legal medicine at Boston University Law School, and began taking his students on field trips, out which grew the notion to film at Bridgewater.
TITICUT FOLLIES, so-called for the variety show in which inmates perform for the staff, and with which Wiseman bookends the film, breaks down our definitions of sane and insane. The prison doctor, who chain-smokes throughout, asks patients, in an almost-comic accent, about their sexual preferences. You check to see what he’s doing with his hands. When an inmate complains about the doctor to the board, they decide the inmate is “falling apart”.
“The film was originally banned because an inmate was shown naked,” Wiseman explains, “and then because they claimed I’d given the superintendent and the attorney general control of the film. I never had, but they claimed it was an oral contract. Eventually the State Supreme Court stopped them from destroying the film, but until 1991, when another court overturned the decision, it could only be shown to scholarly film groups. “The banning, of course, was for political reasons. It embarassed them, because they got the point I was making.”
Today Wiseman’s backed by America’s Public Broadcasting System, which allows him to deliver films for network broadcast at whatever length he chooses. Yet in Paris he directed a theatrical monologue based on a chapter of a Russian novel, “Life and Fate”, by Vasili Grossman. It takes the form of a Russian woman doctor who is Jewish, and about to be executed by the Germans, writing a letter to her son.
“I made a film about the Comedie Francaise, which they liked, so they invited me to direct a play,” Wiseman says. “I’d done that play once before, at the American Rep Theatre, because the subject fascinated me. I learned a lot from my mistakes and thought I could do it better this time.”
It reflects his attitude towards his films, which often seem to veer back towards the same subjects. “All my work is about learning something,” he says. “The subjects interest me, but I don’t know much before I start, and I try to approach them without preconceptions.” Directing a monologue also seems appropriate, because the essence of his documentary technique has been letting people talk. For COMEDIE FRANCAISE Wiseman shot 126 hours of footage, and spent a year editing it down to a three hour forty minute film. Like all his films, it had no narration, captions, or music. One American reviewer complained viewers “had to do way too much of the work”.
“Well, that’s show-biz,” Wiseman says. “I try to provide the audience with information obliquely, through the structure, so they can draw their own conclusions. You can fall into the Hollywood trap, dilute your material to reach the lowest common denominator, but I’d rather not reach an audience at all than reach them by treating them like morons.”
In his 1991 film ASPEN, for example, Wiseman lingers on scenic views of the Colorado resort town, letting the viewer grow familiar with its natural beauty. As scenes build up, you sense the dichotomy between those who live and work in Aspen and those who come there to play. The editing makes these points subtly, but relentlessly, and you feel a sympathy building for the natives.The rich are simply set against them, not with animosity, but with an eye toward spotting the differences.The key to it all is Wiseman’s own sensibility, showing great compassion, but intensely aware of pretence and hypocrisy. It’s very much a “New Deal” liberalism, tempered with American idealism. Many audiences might disagree with the points he tries to make, but far more seem, in the same way as the subjects he films, to miss the point entirely.
“I try not to approach with ideological blinders,” he says. “When I made COPS, right after the 1968 Chicago riots, the cliché was all cops were pigs. After 20 seconds in a cruiser, I realised piggery wasn’t restricted to the police. So we show see what people do to each other, why they need the police. Which isn’t to say the police never acted like pigs.”
Wiseman’s camera becomes amazingly unobtrusive; people forget its presence and behave naturally. “I work with a cameraman, and do sound myself. If I have a question, I won’t ask it,” he says. “I look for other situations that will answer it for me. Sometimes people do play to the camera, but if I think they are, I won’t include that.
“The gym scene in TITTICUT FOLLIES, which many people find disturbing, actually happened three times, and I’m filmed it the third time,” he says. “The first two times I was filming other stuff, and the worst thing you can do is stop and start within a sequence. In 34 years, I’ve only exercised self-censorship once.
In HOSPITAL, I cut out footage of a guy who’d touched a third rail—but from the point of view of the film I now regret it.
“I’m not suggesting it’s a style everyone has to work in,” he says. I ask if a film like Erroll Morris’ MR DEATH, which uses many feature film techniques, gets the same result. “Yes, he let Fred Leuchter talk and lots of audiences just didn’t get it,” he says. I mention Morris remarked MR DEATH “would be the first film about The Holocaust not to win an Oscar” and Wiseman laughs. “The changes in the process of choosing documentary Oscars were long overdue,” he explains. “They’ve opened the doors to a wider range of films, but I have very little experience with the situation, because my own films can’t seem to get qualified for consideration.” (Oscar nomination is not open to films shown first on television.)
It’s hard to believe the regularity with which Wiseman’s subjects hoist themselves on their own petards. “Never underestimate the power of vanity,” he laughs, “and I don’t mean that cruelly. All of us like what we’re doing, and we’d like to share our experiences People running institutions are usually trying to do the best job they can.
“The awareness of the camera lasts about five seconds,” he says. “Very rarely do people act for the camera, and very rarely do they object to being shot.”
The rush to share experience defines the avalanche of so-called ‘reality television’. Programmes like Big Brother purport to show ordinary people; but cast all young and attractive exhibitionists, camera-wise as they play-act game-show challenges and soap- opera scenes. Wiseman’s camera shows something far more sympathetic; it’s the difference between watching rats being trained in a maze and watching lions in their own environment. And society’s institutions, the environment in which people live, has always been his theme.
During the masterclass, a clip was shown from WELFARE (1975), in which a pair of ne’er do wells attempt to wheedle money and accomodation for which they likely don’t qualify from the department. “I wanted to show the complexities,” says Wiseman. “The lies, the class closeness between the workers and the clients, the lack of intelligence which permeates the system, the places where ethics and tactics coincide, or don’t.
“Ordinary life is my subject,” he says. “I start with the assumption that people’s daily life provides as much tragedy, comedy, as great drama. I think of my films as dramatic movies, not archival material.”
There is a pattern in Wiseman’s return to subjects. HIGH SCHOOL (1967) my favourite of his films, deals movingly with social conditioning kids received in the days of the Vietnam war. The school’s microcosm of the adult world outside is seen preparing young people for war, jobs, obedience. The moments when ideals of free speech or human rights pop up are shattered quickly. It catches the mood of disillusionment with the American Dream as well as any film I’ve seen, in large part because it shows the willingness, indeed, the eagerness of the young to accept that dream as reality. 1994’s HIGH SCHOOL 2 showed an educational pendulum swung 180 degrees. Wiseman shows us a world far more sensitive to social diversity, to individual freedom, but at the same time there appears to be less knowledge being passed on.
Wiseman made PRIMATE (1974) about Atlanta researchers into primate behaviour, and ZOO (1993) where the ‘inmates’ are contrasted with the visitors. COMEDIE FRANCAISE could be seen as another view of BALLET (1995) about the American Ballet Theatre. “It’s not intentional, but it’s a reasonable retroactive comment,” Wiseman says. “For HIGH SCHOOL 2, for example, I just was interested in seeing what another kind of high school would be like, a quarter of century later.”
His latest film, BELFAST, MAINE is a study of a small working town, which encompasses many of the institutions that have engaged Wiseman over the years. Did he see Belfast as somehow old-fashioned, off the mainstream of America? “No, not at all,” he says. “I know the area well because I summer near there, it’s where I retreat to do my editing. There are lots of blue-collar workers, a good deal of rural poverty; it’s the essence of America.
“The film is about the nature of daily life and work”, he says, “and the work is defined by one sequence in a fish cannery, where we took four hours of rushes and edited it into one nine minute sequence. It’s got 270 cuts, which might be a record for a documentary.”
Despite the dramatic nature of the cutting, the rhythm of work on a production line soon takes hold of the viewer, and the feeling of monotony and boredom soon follows. “I feel an obligation to present what went on,” Wiseman says. “Not just cut to the most profound, most humorous, or even most obtuse sound bite.
“My original view was that films could change things,” he recollects. “That seems naïve and pretentious now. It’s rare for any document to be that powerful.” How about UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, I suggest? “The exception that proves the rule.”
In the end, the essence of Wiseman’s America is defined the same way his films are defined, by the sensibility which knits so many ordinary scenes together. This is a virtue, and it can be a liability, especially for those to whom such a sensibility is alien, in the sense of what makes us human, not what makes us nationals. The French, who despite inventing chauvinism, appreciate such things; they would call it a concern for the human condition. For Wiseman, it is American life. There is no difference.
At Berkeley is shown in competition at the London Film Festival 12 and 14 October
At Berkeley is shown in competition at the London Film Festival 12 and 14 October