A filmmaker's choices
The other day we had a chance to ask Frederick Wiseman about the origins of an eloquent scene in his latest documentary, ''The Store.'' He said he never stages anything for his documentaries - films such as ''High School,'' ''Welfare ,'' and ''Model'' - which have earned him an international reputation for conveying a sense of actuality about the workings of various contemporary institutions. We wanted to hear more. Mr. Wiseman sent us this essay, drawn from one previously published in Britain, which argues that documentaries are ''fictional forms'' - and describes the process of choice that makes a film from ''a great glop of material.''m
THE importance of documentaries as political instruments for change is stubbornly clung to despite the total absence of any supporting evidence.
Documentaries, like plays, novels, poems, are fictional forms that have no measurable social utility.
A documentary, by whomever made and in no matter what style, is arbitrary, biased, prejudiced, compressed, and subjective like any of its sisterly or brotherly forms. Like its relatives, it is born in choice. A documentary begins with the decision to take pictures of people and record their voices, either at a specific place over a fixed period of time, i.e., a month at a prison, police station, welfare department, hospital, or model agency, or starts with a more abstract issue, i.e., arms control, pollution, or teen-age prostitution. Whether the filmmaker's point of view is imposed on the material from the start or emerges from the process of making the film, the final film is the product of a series of choices or decisions made over time.
The initial choices include subject matter, place, people, camera angles, duration of shooting, sequences to be shot or omitted, transitional material, and cutaways. Once the filming is over and the filmmaker stares at the rushes, 50 hours of film hanging on the editing room wall, a different series of choices emerges. This great glop of material, which represents the recorded memory of the experience of making the film, is of necessity incomplete. It is looking for a home in a form. Editing is the search for a place where it can live.
The filmmaker alone sits in front of a machine which, despite a variety of brand names, is usually called a flat bed - alone, that is, unless he is a subscriber to the view that a film is best made by a committee of seasoned thinkers (a form of filmmaking not worthy of consideration). The 50 hours of film weighing heavily on the editing room wall is only a small fraction of the filmmaker's memory of the experience. It represents that portion of memory that has been recorded. The rest of the memories from all the time spent at the place when picture and sound were not recorded float somewhere in the mind as fragments available for recall, unavailable for inclusion, but of great importance in the mining and sifting process known as editing.
Editing is the assessment and evaluation of individual sequences and the assembling of these disparate, originally unrelated fragments into a dramatic form. Editing has an internal and external aspect. Internal in the need to compress a sequence down to a usable form, external in the way individual edited sequences are joined so as to impose a thematic and dramatic unity on otherwise chaotic material.
This editorial process, which is sometimes deductive, sometimes association-al, sometimes nonlogical, and sometimes a failure, takes place over a six- to 12-month period. The crucial element is for the editor to try to think through his own relationship to the material by whatever combination of means is compatible. This involves a need to conduct a four-way conversation - among himself, the sequence being worked on, his memory, and his general values and experience.
Somehow out of this muttering a film begins to emerge. As the editing goes along, the pace intensifies - 5, 6, 7 days a week; 8, 10, 12, 14 hours a day. The film is a private world seemingly under your complete control as sequences are compressed, rejected, rediscovered, reordered, and connected, the pace accelerating as it becomes possible to make changes faster until, adrenalin flowing, sleep abandoned, you reach that final delusional state of intensity when three more cuts will raise the film from perfection to beatitude and, because you have five minutes to get to the airport to make the sound mix that finally freezes the form of the film, you know that it is not finished but merely over.
The intensity and the isolation of the work are perhaps in part responsible for the filmmaker's exaggerated notion of its importance. When the film opens and traffic proceeds normally and there is no visible tremor in the social Richter scale where a force 18 cataclysm had been anticipated, there is bound to be some regret directed toward the unfeeling world.
While there may be some filmmaker presumption in all this, the attitude is naive. The basic assumption is that the film is going to be such an important event in the life of the audience that all else will be dropped and the barricades instantly manned. The obvious fact that other sources of information exist, newspapers, books, personal experience, and judgment, is often lost sight of in the passionate rush to present and impose what is inevitably a limited view.
The only safe assumption to make is that the audience is as smart or dumb as the filmmaker, and that a film that fairly presents a complex and ambiguous world is the only kind that will correspond to the experience of the audience and be accepted and trusted on its own merits. There are many sources of information, and the documentary filmmaker, for all his hubris, is only one. If documentary films have any use on an informational level it is simply as one of many resources the citizens of a democracy have which may help them toward a more informed decisionmaking.