Venice: Legendary Documentarian Frederick Wiseman Is Still Going Strong After Five Decades

Venice: Legendary Documentarian Frederick Wiseman Is Still Going Strong After Five Decades

Frederick Wiseman is busy. He’s always busy. Since he began directing films — his first, Titicut Follies, was in 1967 at the relatively late age of 38 — Wiseman’s been on the clock. He has made nearly a movie a year, 49 to date (the 50th, Menus Plaisirs — Les Troisgros, a portrait of a French Michelin three-star restaurant, will premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 3) and, at 93 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down. “I like to work. Work is my salvation, it’s my religion.” 

For half a century, Wiseman’s work has been the creation of a series of cinéma vérité documentaries whose almost laughably generic titles — High School, The Store, Welfare, Law and Order, City Hall — belie the films’ complex and idiosyncratic portraits of American institutions. They can be shocking: Titicut Follies, an exposé of the inhumane treatment of patients at a Massachusetts asylum for the criminally insane, is still a painful, terrifying watch; funny, like a scene in Zoo (1993) in which a group of female surgeons castrate a wolf as a male attendant stands by, fidgeting nervously; or even inspirational, as in the case of In Jackson Heights (2015), his vibrant depiction of a New York cultural melting pot. 

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He never appears onscreen — “I’m not very narcissistic,” he explains — but you can always tell when you are watching a Frederick Wiseman film. His style, already set in Titicut Follies, is to present a series of scenes from the everyday life of a group of people or an institution, with no to-camera interviews, no music and no identifying captions or explanatory voiceover. There’s nothing one could call a conventional narrative and rarely anything like a main protagonist (though Boston Mayor Marty Walsh comes close in City Hall). Instead, the place itself — the University of California at Berkeley in At Berkeley, the welfare office in Lower Manhattan in Welfare, the New York Public Library in Ex Libris — is the main character. Taken together, Wiseman’s films are a panopticon of American social structures, how they work and their impact upon individuals. 

Wiseman’s “direct cinema” approach has been phenomenally influential. Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed) has cited Titicut Follies as one of her main inspirations. French filmmaker Alice Diop (Saint Omer, We) has said it was Wiseman’s films, which often give voice to the marginalized, that made her want to become a documentarian. The Safdie brothers have noted his Law and Order (1969) as an influence.

The director has become a regular in Venice. At Berkeley, In Jackson Heights, Ex Libris and City Hall all premiered at the Biennale, as did last year’s Un couple, Wiseman’s first narrative feature. He’s a true, living legend of the Lido. But until recently, Wiseman was considered a TV director. The bulk of his films were produced through PBS and were rarely seen outside the small screen. (He has won three Emmys: One for Law and Order in 1969 for two in for Hospital in 1970.)

“It’s only in the last 20 years or so that some of the major festivals have been interested in my films,” says Wiseman. “But Venice has been particularly interested and Venice played an important role because, unlike some of the other major festivals, they show documentaries (in official competition). They’ve been very interested in my work.”

The current Wiseman revival can arguably be traced back to 2014, when Venice gave the director an honorary Golden Lion for his lifework. 

“That really helped boost the theatrical showing of my films,” he says. “Other festivals got interested and distributors started bringing the movies into theaters.” 

Much of Wiseman’s work can still be hard to track down. He only began making some of the films available on DVD in 2007 and, in the United States, they are absent from all streaming platforms except for Kanopy, a niche on-demand platform for public and academic libraries. It hasn’t helped that, until he switched to shooting and editing on digital with 2009’s La Danse, a portrait of the Paris Opera Ballet, the director shot all but one of his movies on 16 millimeter film, cutting them together on an old-school flatbed editing machine. 

When he spoke with THR, in between finishing the edit for Menus Plaisirs and kicking off the film’s fall festival tour, Wiseman was in the process of digitizing all his old films to create digital prints for theaters, festival retrospectives and, yes, even streaming. 

Given his work ethic, Wiseman rarely has time for reflection, but in the process of rewatching movies that he hadn’t seen “for 40 or 50 years, since I finished them” he noticed repeating themes across his filmography. 

“I’m interested in many of the same things in many of my movies. I’m interested in the different ways people try to help each other. I’m interested in the relationship between men and animals, I’m interested in the complexity of human behavior,” he says. “But none of this was systematic. I just have an idea in my head of a variety of subjects that I wanted learn about, and then I learn about them while making the movie. Because I never do any research. Shooting the movie is my research.”

The decision to portray institutions — a welfare office, a mental hospital, a high school, a state legislature — came early on. 

“I was tired of seeing films, documentaries, about famous people,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in ordinary experience. And I saw that I could use public institutions as a framework for looking at your ordinary experience. It’s an inexhaustible subject. And it’s universal in a way, because every society has a police department, a hospital, a high school. Every society has courts, has theater companies, has dance companies of one sort or another.”

Wiseman’s approach is to embed for weeks, sometimes months, in the institution, shooting a tremendous amount of footage — “it’s usually between 100 and 140 hours. At Berkeley was almost 250 because I went to a lot of classes and professors talk a lot” — which he then whittles down to a mere three or four (or nearly six, in the case of Near Death, his 1989 film about critically ill patients in Boston’s Beth Israel hospital). 

“The first thing I do is look for scenes, for illustrations of what goes on at the place. I’m looking for drama, I’m looking for trauma. I’m looking for comedy. I’m looking for a wide variety of examples of different human behavior,” he says. “And I’m looking for sequences that work, so if I’m lucky enough to have captured the right sequence or if I can edit it correctly, the literal scene can expand into a more general or abstract question about human behavior about the place that’s offering the services.”

Wiseman scenes can be disturbing — Hospital contains a two-minute take of a patient vomiting; in Law and Order, we watch while a white plainclothes officer chokes a Black sex worker during her arrest — but also spellbindingly ordinary or even banal. It’s a joke among Wiseman fans that he really, really loves meetings. Group of people gathered in a room, discussing — or avoiding discussing — the business of the institution in which they work, is the closest thing the director has to a signature shot. 

“I don’t think it’s because I have a particular fondness for meetings,” says Wiseman, “but meetings are important for the life and decision-making in the institutions that are subject to the film. If, for example, you’re doing a film on the New York Public Library, there was a staff meeting of the senior offices once a week and that’s where a lot of major decisions were made. Among other things, I’m interested in how decisions are made and how power is exercised, so to not attend and include those meetings would have been a mistake.”

Politics of the overt, Michael Moore variety, are absent from Wiseman’s movies, but a strong ethical sense does run through his work. He rejects the label “objective” for his movies — “I don’t think mine or anybody else’s films are objective, because they represent choices that I’ve made” — but would accept the term “fair.” “I think my films are fair accounts of the experience I had in making them.” 

Our current era of extreme political polarization has had little impact on Wiseman’s filmmaking. Monrovia, Indiana (2018) is a broadly sympathetic, and often sweetly tender, look at the inhabitants of a deep red town. In Jackson Heights, set in Queens, is a love letter to one of America’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods. He never watches cable news — “all I ever watch on television is basketball or tennis” — and has successfully unplugged from partisan battles, online or off. “That may sound strange, but you know, after a day of sitting in front of a screen I am not anxious to spend the rest of my time doing so,” he says. “I’d rather read a book or take a walk.”

And while his movies can be sharply critical of the institutions they depict, there’s never a whiff of cynicism in a Wiseman film. 

“I think it is as important to make films that show people making a genuine effort to do a good job as it is to show films or to show experiences where people are indifferent or callous,” he says. “To take two extremes: The prison where I made Titicut Follies was a horrible place, so the film illustrates the incompetence of psychiatrists, the poor education and training of the guards, the horrible conditions in which the inmates are kept. City Hall is the other extreme because my impression of what went on in city hall is that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had a genuine interest in providing as good of services as possible to the citizens of Boston, and the sequences in the film illustrate the genuine effort to do a good job. I think, from my point of view, it’s just as important to show that sort of activity as it is to show indifference and cruelty.”

Fifty films in, Wiseman has no plans to retire. Menus Plaisirs will be his latest film in Venice, but, if he has anything to say about it, not his last. 

“My routine is to work and I like to work, to keep at it. It helps pass the time. I’m probably in denial about my age; I still feel I have more movies in me. I don’t really think about my legacy, or anything like that. I just think about making the next film. And it’d be nice, after I’m dead, if my films continue to be shown.”