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A Chronicler of Culture: The Continuing Career of Frederick Wiseman

By Bob Fisher

From Frederick 'Wiseman's Welfare.'

Flash back to the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles on November 9, 1990. Jack Haley Jr. is standing at the podium, joshing with the crowd at the Sixth Annual International Documentary Association Distinguished Documentary Achievement Awards Gala. He summons Frederick Wiseman to the stage to accept the IDA Career Achievement Award. It was a memorable moment.

At an earlier press conference, then IDA President Harrison Engle described Wiseman as "an innovative chronicler of culture who invented an original way to tell stories."

It all began in 1965, when Wiseman decided to document the uneven interactions among inmates, jailers and doctors at a Bridgewater, Massachusetts state prison for the criminally insane. He had to overcome daunting and sometimes seemingly impossible obstacles. It took a year and a half and the intercession of the lieutenant governor for Wiseman to get permission to make the film. He spent 29 days at the prison, and recorded some 80 hours of 16mm film with synchronized sound.

There were no interviews, commentaries or music in his final cut of the 84-minute film. The images and voices of the prisoners and their jailers told a grim and compelling story. Reviews of the first screening of Titicut Follies in 1967 commented on the bad treatment of the inmates. That sparked a 22-year legal battle with politicians in the state government. A Massachusetts court banned public screenings of the film, and Wiseman tenaciously defended his First Amendment rights. He finally won in 1989.

By then, his career had shifted into high gear. "I figured that if I could make a film at a prison for the criminally insane, there were stories that could be told about other institutions," he notes. Wiseman had 25 long-form documentary credits when he received the IDA Career Achievement Award. A coveted Peabody Award followed in 1991. He has earned various other accolades, including three Emmys and the George Polk Career Award.

Last February, Wiseman received an Award of Distinction from the American Society of Cinematographers. He was only the second documentary filmmaker feted by ASC. The award was presented to Wiseman by the venerable film critic Leonard Maltin, who called his films "the histories of our times. They tell the stories of the best and the worst of our institutions."

Wiseman has followed an improbable career path that has a storybook quality in itself. He was born and raised in a Boston suburb and studied English and political science at Williams College. After graduation, Wiseman served a two-year stint in the United States Army at Fort Benning, Georgia. He subsequently earned a law degree at Yale University.

Wiseman spent the next two years in Paris, France, where his lifestyle role models were Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. "I hung out at cafs, but didn't write any novels," he admits.

Wiseman returned to Boston, where he worked as a researcher at several law schools and taught at Boston University Law School. After a few years, he felt he needed to do something more satisfying. He had an idea for a fiction film about street life in Harlem. Wiseman produced The Cool World and recruited Shirley Clarke to direct it. He says that experience demystified the process of filmmaking for him.

Wiseman had taken law students on field trips to the Bridgewater state prison because it provided interesting insights into that aspect of the justice system. He decided to make a documentary at the prison. That was the genesis of Titicut Follies.

His timing was right. In the early 1960s, Albert Maysles, Robert Drew, Ricky Leacock and other documentary filmmakers had perfected the craft of recording synchronized sound while shooting with handheld 16mm film cameras.

"I made a conscious decision not to operate the camera because that gave me more freedom to figure out what to shoot while I recorded sound," Wiseman says. "Shooting the film was my research. The storytelling was done during editing. My mentors were novelists and playwrights who taught me about dramatic structure and characterization."

All of his films since 1969 have been at least partially financed by WNET/Channel 13, the PBS affiliate in New York City, and have aired on public television stations.

Wiseman launched Zipporah Films, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1970. The company produces and distributes his films. "I decided to distribute my own films because I didn't want other people telling me what to make or how to edit them," he explains.

In addition to PBS, Wiseman's documentaries regularly air on cable outlets in the US and on television stations in Western Europe, including England, France and Germany, as well as in Japan. Zipporah also sells and rents his work in 16mm and VHS formats. His films are in school libraries where they are used for social studies, English and other classes. They've also been shown at many film festivals and in retrospective screenings. "I hope that within the next year my films will be available on DVD," he says.

Wiseman has produced, directed and edited 35 films to date. The subjects are diverse, but all of them are about established institutions that are common around the world. The short list includes High School, Law and Order, Hospital, Meat, Welfare, Juvenile Court, Blind, Near Death, The Store, Ballet, Central Park, Public Housing and Domestic Violence.

His current film, which is scheduled to air on PBS in 2007, is about the democratic process, as it is practiced by the Idaho state legislature. Wiseman selected Idaho partially because its legislature is comprised of citizensdoctors, lawyers, dentists, contractors, etc.who live and work in their own communities, and because it only meets for 10 or 12 weeks once a year. All the action takes place on two floors of the state capitol. That made it practical for him to film an entire legislative session, as well as committee meetings, politicians meeting with constituents, conversations in hallways, etc.

This is the 22nd film that cinematographer John Davey has lensed with Wiseman. It's like they are connected at the hip: Wiseman will lean in towards the action with the mike while giving Davey signals indicating whether he wants a close-up or wider shot.

Wiseman and Davey recorded some 140 hours on Kodak Vision2 500T 7218 film, all in available light. Wiseman rarely augments natural light. "We shoot on film because it creates a sense of depth with vibrant colors and subtle tones that speak to the audience on an emotional level," Wiseman explains.

Wiseman eschews the use of video assist because he feels it would be intrusive; he doesn't want people clustered around a monitor in a video village. "I try to be non-intrusive, but the reality is that while I'm sizing up the situation and figuring out what to shoot, the people we are filming are also sizing me up," Wiseman says. "They are deciding whether they can trust me sufficiently to ignore the camera and go on with their business. I always try to be extremely direct and straightforward when they ask questions. It's the ethical thing to do. It's also the best thing to do because we need them to trust us."

At the end of each day of the Idaho project, the exposed negative was shipped to DuArt Lab in New York City, which then processed the negative and shipped 16mm dailies to Idaho the following evening. Wiseman reviewed the footage, usually with Davey, either on a Steenbeck or a 16mm projector.

Editing is a two-stage process for Wiseman. First, he reviews all of the film with sync sound on a Steenbeck flatbed. He makes one-line entries in a notebook describing every shot, including ID, reel and edge-code numbers and subject categories. There are generally 30 to 40 categories. He also rates each sequence with one, two or three stars.

"I do all the editing on the Steenbeck," he maintains. "I have a hard time thinking about the structure of the film in the abstract. I have to see how the sequences actually go together. The first version usually comes out to about 30 or 40 minutes longer than the final film. Then, I'll work on the rhythms within and between sequences, and decide what translations are needed. I also work on the literary elements, including structure, foreshadowing, characterizations and abstractions. I try to make films about what I've learned while making them, rather than by imposing preconceived notions. The final film is always different than what I thought before the shooting and editing."