The Follies Of Documentary Filmmaking
Frederick Wiseman's 20-Year Fight
Photos by Jennifer Smith-Mayo
Frederick Wiseman is probably the best documentary filmmaker there is. He’s definitely the purest. But it’s very likely you haven’t heard of him yet, much less seen his films, even though he’s been working at a relentless pace since 1967.
Wiseman’s work, until this fall, has been unavailable on DVD or VHS. It has had zero commercial distribution. Your only chance of spotting one would be if you followed your local PBS affiliate’s schedule very carefully, and we both know you don’t do that. You might have also been able to see one at a museum or film fest, but that would have been rare, like spotting a unicorn walking through the MoMA. So why hasn’t Wiseman let his films out to video-rental shops, Netflix, and the like until now? Because he doesn’t compromise on anything, and it took him this long to work out a system in which he could get his films available on a large scale without taking it up the ass financially. Simple as that.
Now that you can see his movies, you should start doing so immediately. A Frederick Wiseman documentary is the most perfect form of immersive reporting. He goes to a place (anything from a mental hospital, to a high school, to an army basic-training camp, to an upscale New York modeling agency, to Central Park) and stays there for anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks and shoots, and shoots, and shoots. He never interviews anybody. He never appears on camera. The people and the place tell their own stories, and they do it better than anyone else could. These films are the closest you can come to having been somewhere yourself.
Any conversation with Wiseman will almost inevitably return to Titicut Follies, the 1967 documentary he made at Bridgewater, a state mental institution in Massachusetts. It is an incredibly harrowing, moving, and—most surprisingly—entertaining portrait of the inside of a place that nobody was supposed to see. Prisoners are kept naked and abused. Heartless psychiatrists decide the fate of men during blithe staff meetings. An inmate stands on his head in the courtyard and calmly sings, and another one is force-fed—through a tube that goes into his nose and down to his stomach—by a staff member who is pouring liquid mush into the funnel with one hand and smoking a cigarette with the other. You really sometimes cannot believe what you’re seeing as you watch Titicut Follies.
We recently talked to Frederick Wiseman on the phone from his home base in remotest Maine. He told us, mostly, about the decades-long war of attrition he went through to get his first movie seen.
Vice: Can you tell me how you got interested in documenting institutions?
Frederick Wiseman: When I was doing Titicut Follies, which is the first one, it occurred to me that while I was doing it at Bridgewater, I could have done it at a number of other institutions. Out of that came the idea of doing a so-called institutional series. At that point—and I think it’s still true to some extent—the kind of subjects I’d been choosing were not subjects that were being picked for documentary films. But the idea of making a movie about one place, from my point of view, was useful because it provided a boundary.
Having clear borders that framed what the film could and couldn’t be about was helpful.
The place serves the same function as the lines and net of a tennis court. Whatever happens within the place is suitable for the film and whatever happens outside is for another film. So I tried to pick places that existed for awhile, that were up and running, that were thought to be good examples of their kind, and that affected the lives of a lot of people.
That way they would be more rich in things to cover. Were places like hospitals, high schools, and police beats not being covered in documentaries before you did them because filmmakers weren’t thinking in broad-enough terms?
I could speculate, but it would be completely hypothetical.
Well, I got started 40 years ago. The first movie I made was in 1966. It was only about 1958 when the technology that allowed you to shoot handheld sync-sound movies was developed. So when I got started, there weren’t that many films where people were using that technique. And because the technique was new, there were many different aspects of contemporary life that weren’t explored with it yet. There still are today.
But early on, after 1958, people who were making sync documentaries were mostly following people, either politicians or criminals or both. The idea I had was to make the place the star rather than one person. So the film is about the people at the place.
What do you say to someone before you start rolling film on them?
I’m pretty straightforward. Ethically, that’s the only way to be, but it’s also the best thing to do tactically. I don’t want to put myself in a position where after a film is made, someone can say, “You lied to me about what you were going to do.” So, in the beginning, I say some version of this: “I’m going to make a documentary film. Nothing in the film will be staged. I want to be around for four to eight weeks. During that time, 80 to 110 hours of film will be shot. I don’t know what the themes of the film will be until I edit it. All I am doing now is collecting material. If anybody doesn’t want to be photographed, all they have to do is indicate that and there will be no debate about it. I discover the film in the course of the editing. The final film will be shown on PBS and distributed in different formats.”
It must be hard to do that in the midst of some of the chaotic scenes you’re shooting.
Often it’s not possible to ask permission before the sequence is shot. You can’t say, “Hey, doc, wait a second before you fix that man’s broken leg. I want to tell you what I’m doing.” I shoot till it’s over and then I say, if the people don’t already know, what I just said to you. I ask if it’s all right to use the material, and I tape record my explanation and their response. In my experience, it’s extremely rare that anybody ever says no.
Why do you think that is?
Again, I would only be able to speculate. But I think that people are pleased that you’re interested in them and that their picture is being taken and their voice is being recorded. You can’t underestimate vanity as a reason.
Still from Titicut Follies.
Even when their activities are unsavory?
That’s a complicated question. I think most of us feel that what we do is OK. We don’t necessarily see what we do in the same way that somebody else does. That’s often the case. If we thought we were being cruel or hypocritical or sadistic or whatever, presumably we wouldn’t do it. All of us are unconscious of the impact or the effect or the ambiguity of what we’re saying and doing.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten a lot of insight into human psychology and human nature while making your films?
I wouldn’t reduce it to lessons, but anybody—not just a documentary filmmaker—whose experience brings them in contact with a lot of people learns a lot about human nature. Or maybe they just deceive themselves into thinking they’ve learned a lot about human nature.
What do you do when somebody starts getting too performative or unnatural when you’re shooting them?
If I actually think they’re performing for me, I stop.
You just walk away?
Yes. It happens sufficiently rarely as to not be a problem. Again, that’s something that’s rooted in nonfilm experience. As a journalist, if you think someone is bullshitting you, you make some adjustment to that in your reaction to whoever you’re talking to.
The presence of a filmmaker is unusual, but not as unusual as the presence of an interviewer or someone who’s intervening in the situation. That’s more artificial. I think it’s true that the events you see in my movies would have taken place if the movie had not been made. That’s not true of an interview movie or a print interview. Those things are done specifically for a particular event.
Do you never feel the urge to ask questions?
Well, I sometimes do, but I don’t do it—at least not on film. In order to try and inform myself about what’s going on in a place, I’ll often ask questions, but not about a specific event. I might want to know when the weekly staff meeting is or who sets the agenda, who are the people at the place who are thought to exercise the most power. I spend a lot of time on those sorts of questions.
There’s a variety of things going on. I’m probably thinking, it’s a good scene and I want to do whatever I can to make sure I have it. Second of all, there’s a corner of my mind that’s amazed that people can treat other people this way. It’s hard to reconstruct the way it feels now. When you’re in the midst of it, it’s hard to go beyond thinking, well, this is a great scene. And that’s just because you’re busy. It’s different when you’re in the editing room and you have the opportunity to try and reflect on it. The editing is a much more analytical situation. You have to identify to yourself what you think is going on, and you can run it backward and forward and upside down and sideways as many times as you want.
Titicut Follies is legendary. It was banned and suppressed in various ways. Can you tell me about that?
The movie was completely banned for about six or seven years. It came out in the fall of ’67, and almost immediately after it appeared there was an injunction, and then a trial.
I made the film with the permission of all the relevant authorities. You can’t make a film in a maximum-security prison without being accompanied. When the film was finished, I showed it to the superintendent and to a man named Elliot Richardson who, when I got permission to make the film, had been lieutenant governor supervising Bridgewater and the other prisons. When the film was finished, he was attorney general of Massachusetts.
That name sounds familiar…
He went on to great fame when he was both attorney general and secretary of state under Nixon for a short period of time. He quit over Watergate. Anyway, I showed it to the superintendent and he liked it. I showed it to Richardson and he liked it.
Still from Titicut Follies.
That’s really surprising.
It amazed me that they let me in to shoot there in the first place.
Did they really think that conditions there were presentable to the outside world?
Well, the superintendent was my buddy—in a professional sense. I had known him because I had taught law for a few years and I used to take students on field trips to mental hospitals and prisons. It was out of that experience that I had the idea to do Titicut Follies. So I had met the superintendent when I was making arrangements to bring the students to Bridgewater, and when I thought of making a movie there, I approached him. He became my advocate within the penal system. He guided me around the politics of getting permission. Even with his help, it took around a year and a half to get the OK.
Why could he possibly have wanted the movie made?
At that point he’d been superintendent for something like nine years. He wasn’t getting any money out of the state legislature. He wasn’t getting any additional funds, and he needed money for new programs.
He wanted to show that money was needed.
Right. And Richardson helped just because he thought it was a good idea! They both initially liked the film. They knew that Bridgewater was like that, in part because of the absence of money to attract and train competent guards, psychiatrists, and social workers. That was one of the points. The film was then scheduled to show at the New York Film Festival. It got some prefestival reviews, which were very good. They both praised the film and condemned the state of Massachusetts. Then some social worker from Minnesota wrote the governor of Massachusetts, a man named John A. Volpe, a letter saying, “How could you allow a movie to be made that shows naked men?” She hadn’t even seen the movie—she had just read the reviews. Volpe, not having heard of the movie before this letter, felt that his political career was going to be jeopardized by the movie. He proceeded to get what’s called an ex parte injunction, which means that he got an injunction without having me represented at the hearing. It was against the film being shown at the New York Film Festival.
Just at that festival?
Well, that was the only public place that he knew it was going to be shown. But they showed it anyway, and then it opened in New York and he got a permanent injunction against it. Then there was a committee of the Massachusetts state legislature, which was controlled by the Democrats, that had it out for Richardson. They convened hearings to find out how I had gotten permission to make the film. They wanted to use that information against Richardson.
That’s exactly right. So then there was a 19-day trial, where they made three principal allegations…
First, that the film was an invasion of privacy of the inmate named Jim, the man who’s shown naked in his cell. Second, that I had breached an oral contract giving the state editorial control over the film.
Was there anything like that?
There was no document whatsoever that in any way supported that view. But still, the superintendent testified to there having been an oral contract.
So he perjured himself?
Yes. Richardson, a very clever lawyer, cooked up that theory as a way of asserting that I had contracted away my First Amendment rights. He was afraid that I would get the case removed to federal court.
Because federal courts are really by the book on constitutional law.
Yes. And it is possible to contract away your First Amendment rights, so they were trying to prove that I had.
The third assertion they were making was that all the receipts of the film should be held in trust for the benefit of the inmates.
They really wanted to nail you.
The judge found in this case a right of privacy for the first time in the history of Massachusetts.
Wow. I’m surprised they’d made it to the late 60s without having set a privacy precedent.
On the contract issue, the judge simply believed the state over me. I said X, they said Y, and the judge—who was specially appointed to deal with the case and who had absolutely no sympathy for the film at all—decided in their favor. He also decided that all the receipts would be held in trust for the inmates.
So it was a resounding state victory. But I’ll bet there wasn’t any money there to hold in trust anyway.
Yes. At that point there were no receipts! He also declared that the negative should be burned.
Still from Titicut Follies.
He described the film as a “nightmare of ghoulish obscenities.”
It’s more like a documentation of ghoulish obscenities.
The next thing I did was appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. They decided that the film had value but could only be seen by limited audiences: doctors, lawyers, judges, health-care professionals, social workers, and students in these and related fields, but not the “merely curious general public.” And this was on condition that I give the attorney general’s office a week’s notice before any screening and that I file an affidavit after that everyone who attended was, of my personal knowledge, a member of the class of people allowed to see the film. Those were the conditions under which I could screen Titicut Follies.
In other words, effectively impossible.
Effectively impossible! What was I going to do? Interview everybody who wanted to see the film? Five years later, a new attorney general was appointed in Massachusetts. My lawyers went to see him and he agreed to modify the injunction so that I could show the film if I could rely on someone’s representation to me that the audience was going to consist of the accepted class. If a teacher at, say, the University of Illinois, wanted to show the film, he had to sign a form saying that the audience was going to be within the class of people allowed to see the film, send the form to me, and I would have to file with the attorney general’s office and the clerk of the supreme court. And then, within a week of the screening, I would have to file another piece of paper verifying that the people seeing it were within the class that were allowed to have seen it.
It’s too many hoops to jump through. Did anyone go through all this to screen it?
Well, yes. There were a lot of people that wanted to see the film so they went through that, you know, charade.
Were film students allowed to see it?
No. Nor were journalists.
So it would have been illegal for a journalist to view Titicut Follies.
Yes. But it’s a question of who is a student in “these or related fields.” I think that sometimes the film was able to be screened in journalism schools because the argument was made that journalists were within the class.
Also, as Jim is walking up the stairs, one of the guards slaps him. You hear the noise but you don’t see it because it’s shot from behind.
What were you hoping to show about this situation when you edited the sequence?
I wanted to show the way he was treated because this was no way to treat a human being, obviously, no matter what crime he committed. Also, I didn’t understand why some inmates had to be kept naked. The announced rationale was that they were suicidal. But they could have been given paper suits. In fact, for six months after the film came out, they were given paper suits—until the budget for it ran out. The real reason for the nudity was just that it was easier to keep them that way. Some of the men were incontinent, and the guards didn’t like the idea of having to strip smelly clothes off them.
How long did the ban on the film last?
It lasted until 1990. In the mid 80s, I started another action. The original judge in the case had died. There was a headline in the Boston Globe saying “Titicut Follies Judge Dead.” So I brought another case, saying that circumstances had changed. The new judge appointed a special master, which means someone to assist him, and tasked him to investigate whether the showing of the film would damage the surviving inmates. The first job was to figure out who was still alive. The judge appointed a lawyer to inquire about the status of the surviving inmates. The lawyer wrote a report saying that, in his view, the film could be publicly shown without damaging the surviving inmates. The judge then said I could show the film if I blacked out the faces of the inmates.
Still from Titicut Follies.
All of them? That’s impossible.
Yes. I refused to do that, and I also said that while it was possible to do that on videotape, it really wouldn’t be possible to do that successfully on film. But I would not do it even if it were doable. So we asked him to reconsider. He did, and then he wrote a decision saying that the film is fully protected by the First Amendment, and it could be freely shown. And then it was shown on PBS.
Wow, and it only took 23 years. When you’re shooting, you relocate to wherever the film takes you and then what? Shoot till you drop, get some sleep, and then get back to it?
Exactly. Sometimes the place is open day and night, like a hospital, or sometimes it’s open from seven in the morning until seven at night. It varies. If a place is open 24 hours a day, I’m probably there for 15. If it’s open 12, I’m there all 12. Then at night I watch rushes. It’s a long day. You don’t get much sleep. But it’s very intense. It’s fun.
It must be physically taxing.
Documentary filmmaking is a sport in that sense. You have to be in reasonably good shape because you’re running around all day with the equipment, and you have to have to be able to get along with very little sleep.
And you’re still shooting at the same pace today as you always were?
Yeah. I do sound and I direct, then there’s a cameraman and a third person to carry the extra mags and do whatever odd jobs are required. During shooting, I basically lead the cameraman with the mic. I pick out what gets shot. We have little signals that we use during the shooting.
There’s a lot of responsibility in editing a documentary—in making a documentary in general, really—because you can be suggestive and manipulative if you choose to be.
Well, there’s the danger that it can be manipulative in the bad sense of the word. But it has to be manipulative in the good sense of the word! Choices have to be made, and the choices have meaning and consequences. I feel that I have an enormous responsibility to the people who have let me shoot them.
INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON