Pioneering documentarian Frederick Wiseman is one of the key developers of what is sometimes called “observational” or “direct” cinema. These days, our concept of documentaries is often shaped by Michael Moore or Al Gore, unabashedly advocacy movies that are more like op-ed pieces than journalism. But Wiseman’s interest in institutions of all kinds, from mental hospitals to high schools, from high end department stores to welfare offices, from making decisions with and about patients at the end of life to the efforts of people with disabilities to achieve independence, from people on welfare to state legislators, from missile-makers to high-fashion models, all are displayed in forthright documentaries that tell their stories without narration.
While there is no such thing as complete objectivity in any story-telling and Wiseman himself is the first to admit that he shapes his stories with his choice of structure, the order and the positioning of the cuts, his movies have a kind of directness and intimacy that lets us experience what he shows us in our own way, without relying on anyone telling us what to think about what we are seeing. He does not interact with his subjects. He lets them tell their own stories, not by speaking to us directly but by becoming so comfortable with his camera that they let us see them as they are.
Wiseman’s films have sometimes been controversial. His first documentary, “Titticut Follies,” is a searing expose of a Massachusetts mental hospital. It was banned from release and restricted in its showing to anyone but educators and students by a court order on the grounds that it violated the patients’ rights to privacy, despite the fact that Wiseman had received permission from all of the people portrayed in the film or else their legal guardian. The film’s unblinking portrayal of the abusive and neglectful treatment of the patients may have been the reason for the ruling. In 1992, it was allowed to be shown on PBS.
The films are available on DVD at a modest price for individuals. For a limited time, Wiseman’s films are available to public libraries at a discount.
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