Saturday, December 26, 2020

Frederick Wiseman's Films

noun: documentary; plural noun: documentaries
    a movie or a television or radio program that provides a factual record or report.

A documentary film is a un biased non-fictional motion-picture intended to "document reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record”. Reference:

Frederick Wiseman’s name can be put against the definition of documentary because his films have documented places, people, cities, organizations, institutions, communities and buildings. He is highly prolific and has directed almost one film per year since his debut documentary in 1967 (Titicut Follies). The recent City Hall (2020) is his 45th feature documentary. However, for the longest time, it was hard for me to see his films in the same year as it was released. This is because his films were released at select film festivals and their length of 3-4 hours ensured that they never made it to my local city. In the years between 2005-2013, the gap between his film getting released and my time to see it got reduced to 2-3 years. Then in 2014, I finally saw a Frederick Wiseman movie in a cinema (National Gallery) in the same year of its release. That good fortune continued in 2015 when I saw In Jackson Heights a few months after its release. Finally, this year’s City Hall (released on PBS Dec 22) is the 3rd Wiseman film I have seen in the same year as its release. On top of that, his films are now more accessible than ever. Since 2018, all his films are  available to stream via Kanopy, which means anyone with a library card (at least in North America) can see his movies.

I planned a mini-spotlight which included re-viewing Titicut Follies after more than a decade and seeing a few other films for the first time. The goal was to finish viewing all films in time for premiere of City Hall on Dec 22.

Titicut Follies
Canal Zone
Public Housing
Belfast, Maine
City Hall

Of the above films, Welfare is a remarkable film that left me in awe. The film came out in 1975 and shows the challenges in trying to judge/handle individual welfare cases. The problems related to housing, unemployment, welfare have gotten much worse since the film came out as the gap between rich and poor has widened in the last 45 years. On top of that, the topic of welfare has been heavily politicized in America with politicians and certain media outlets dehumanizing those on welfare over the last few decades. The welfare system is shown be struggling to handle all the cases in 1975. It is hard to image how this system has coped in 2020 and will cope in 2021 with more job losses and a government that isn’t interested in helping address the core issues of poverty. The political parties and their media mouthpieces are not interesting in providing any solutions related to retraining people who have lost their jobs or how to diversify jobs.

There is a hint of a solution to some job creation provided at the end of Public Housing  (1997) which contains ideas on how residents can form their own businesses to generate some wealth. It is not clear how much such ideas made a difference or if they gained traction because one of the stats mentioned in City Hall (2020) shows that the average wealth of African Americans is substantially behind those of White Americans. This disparity is related to other minorities as well. In City Hall, a hispanic contractor mentions his plight in trying to win big contracts and not getting anywhere over 30 years. He says that there is clearly a disparity in how city council awards its contracts to companies but the film shows discussions and ideas on how to make things better.

The films of Frederick Wiseman shed light on relevant topics of economic disparity but are these films seen by anyone who is in the power to mount a change? Are these films merely meant to be praised by those on the left but they lead to no policy or political change? The protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing raised topics of systematic racist policies that have existed for decades and some of these policies are indirectly reflected in Wiseman’s films but only the recent City Hall shows a mayor with some words about making a relevant change.

It isn’t only economic disparity that has gotten worse in America but racism has gotten worse in the last few decades. In Welfare, a racist man speaks his mind to a black security officer. The racist is shown to be an isolated individual in the context of the film because everyone else in the film is shown to treat the welfare cases with some degree of patience and compassion. However, the words spoken by that racist have sadly now become part of the mainstream American landscape in 2020.

Location, Location

The films of Frederick Wiseman certainly help to give a sense of life in a community. Even though sometimes we only see a subset of a community, we can still get a feel for how people go about their daily jobs, their routines, their struggles and beliefs. Sometimes, the omissions tells a story in itself. One reason I wanted to see Canal Zone was to see how the way of life would be shown and what amount of history would be covered. The day-to-day canal operations related to the Panama canal locks and logistics around ships are fascinating but none of Panama’s history is shown. Instead, what we get is a very American way of life as the film mostly shows Americans involved in running the canal and going about their lives in exile. This shouldn’t be a surprise as the  film came out in 1977 and the US was still in control of the Canal. Hence, the overly American perspective devoid of the history of how the Canal came to be and the US’s involvement in Panama’s history.

After years of negotiations for a new Panama Canal treaty, agreement was reached between the United States and Panama in 1977. Signed on September 7, 1977, the treaty recognized Panama as the territorial sovereign in the Canal Zone but gave the United States the right to continue operating the canal until December 31, 1999. Despite considerable opposition in the U.S. Senate, the treaty was approved by a one-vote margin in September 1978. It went into effect in October 1979, and the canal came under the control of the Panama Canal Commission, an agency of five Americans and four Panamanians. Reference:

Reality fiction/Cinema vérité/Direct Cinema/Actuality

A few locations in Wiseman’s films made me think of Allan King. Wiseman’s Titicut Follies set in Massachusetts Correctional Institution came out in 1967, the same year as Allan King’s Warrendale set in Toronto’s Warrendale mental treatment facility. Wiseman’s Near Death (1989) is set at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and looks at staff providing care to those in their final moments, an aspect covered in King’s Dying at Grace (2003) which looks at terminally ill cancer patients at Toronto Grace Health Centre.

As it turns out, the overlap in location and topic is only on the surface. It is clear after watching the films, there is a different method at work in Wiseman’s films compared to Allan King. When it comes to Allan King’s films, they can be called ‘Direct Cinema’ or ‘Actuality films’ (as per the Criterion Eclipse Series 24: The Actuality Dramas of Allan King).

By definition:

The actuality film is a non-fiction film genre that, like the documentary film, uses footage of real events, places, and things, yet unlike the documentary is not structured into a larger argument, picture of the phenomenon or coherent whole. Reference:

The above doesn’t apply to Frederick Wiseman’s films which indeed are structured “into a larger argument”. Instead, Wiseman called his film “reality fictions”.

He has called his work “reality fiction,” an acknowledgement that even nonfiction is usually a narrative form and that narrative is one person’s method of storytelling.

In an early interview for the American Bar Association, Wiseman explained his method. “There’s no such thing as an ‘objective’ film. I try to make a fair film. By that I mean that the final film is in a sense a report on what I saw and felt in the course of the shooting and editing.” Many hours of footage are edited down to a few hours of final film that is, he says, “subjective, impressionistic, and compressed.” Reference:

He never liked the term ‘cinema vérité’:

Frederick Wiseman never liked the term cinema vérité — it is “just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I’m concerned,” he once said — but his kind of non-fiction filmmaking is a case study in the philosophy and practice of its ideals. Reference:

The editing and selection of interviews, subjects, locations indeed add up to a picture that Wiseman intends to show.

Useful reading:

1. Mark Binelli recently in NY Times:

“The fact that Wiseman’s half-century-long project is a series of cinéma-vérité documentaries about American institutions, their titles often reading like generic brand labels — “High School,” “Hospital,” “The Store,” “Public Housing,” “State Legislature” — makes its achievement all the more remarkable but also easier to overlook. Beginning with “Titicut Follies” (1967), a portrait of a Massachusetts asylum for the criminally insane that remains shocking to this day, Wiseman has directed nearly a picture a year, spending weeks, sometimes months, embedded in a strictly demarcated space — a welfare office in Lower Manhattan, a sleepy fishing village in Maine, the Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory University, the flagship Neiman Marcus department store in Dallas, the New York Public Library, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Tampa, Fla., a Miami zoo — then editing the upward of a hundred hours of footage he brings home into an idiosyncratic record of what he witnessed. Taken as a whole, the films present an unrivaled survey of how systems operate in our country, with care paid to every line of the organizational chart.” Mark Binelli, NY Times 

2. A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, NY Times, 2017

“One of the most important and original filmmakers working today, Frederick Wiseman has been making documentaries for 50 years. His movies are about specific places — institutions, organizations, cities and communities: the New York neighborhood of Jackson Heights; the coastal town of Belfast, Me.; the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind; American Ballet Theater; the National Gallery in London. What interests Mr. Wiseman is how these institutions reflect the larger society and what they reveal about human behavior.” A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis (2017)

3. Ben Kingsberg NY Times 

4. Michael Ewins, BFI, 10 Essential Films 

5. Louis Menand on City Hall

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