Documentary focuses on people learning to `see'. `Experiential' TV not engaged in entertainment

Deaf and Blind PBS, tomorrow, 9-11:12 p.m.; Saturday 9-11:45 p.m; June 24, 9-11:05 p.m.; June 25, 9-10:59 p.m. (check local listings). Producer/director/editor: Frederick Wiseman. The surrogate eyes of Frederick Wiseman are seeing the world for us once again.

Since 1967, Mr. Wiseman has made a series of cinema v'erit'e documentaries about many aspects of our society - its institutions as well as individuals. Serious documentary viewers may remember his controversial ``Titicut Follies,'' ``High School,'' ``Model,'' or ``The Store,'' among the 20 films he has made.

Viewers feel involved

All Wiseman's documentaries are long, at times seemingly stagnant, but always filled with a sense of reality. The viewer becomes involved not merely as a passive observer but as a participant in an ongoing discovery.

A leisurely pace

Because of his regard for film as an extension of his own eyes and ears, Wiseman doesn't hesitate to meander in strange areas and linger there, trail his subjects patiently, or often just sit still and watch life go on. Sometimes this takes time, and he has been criticized for not excising enough from his finished films. They may seem to run on too long for impatient viewers, but the pace is the pace of Frederick Wiseman. If you choose to watch his films, you must be prepared to walk, hand in hand, with the filmmaker at his pace.

The rewards are enormous. In this nonfiction miniseries, filmed under a grant from the MacArthur Prize Fellows Program, Wiseman focuses on the schools and training programs at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. The four films that resulted are called ``Blind,'' ``Deaf,'' ``Multi-Handicapped,'' and ``Adjustment and Work.''

Not only does Wiseman present an empathic picture of the disabled students and loving staff, but he makes his way into organizational meetings, the parental decisionmaking process - all the facets of the lives of the disabled, as they find an increasing role in a today's society.

Wiseman imposes no judgments on viewers; instead he leads them to understanding and, thus, compassion. In ``Blind,'' for instance, as his unobtrusive camera follows a little blind boy and a tiny girl down the school hallways as they touch the walls and learn to use a cane, feeling for steps, there is a sense of discovery on the part of the viewer. Not pity, but revelation as to how the blind learn to overcome the obstacles facing them. He does the same for the deaf and the multiple-handicapped in later segments.

Call it `experiential TV'

This miniseries is not entertainment; it cannot even be called education, even though it is filled with information about a segment of society with which many of us never make contact. The Wiseman documentaries demand a new category: ``experiential television.''

To miss them would be to miss peerless, if difficult, examples of what may prove to be the most relevant and responsible art of this television era. Experience Wiseman.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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