Acclaimed filmmaker doesn't like to play 'gotcha'
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — No narration. No explanation. No answers.
The acclaimed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman tries to "treat viewers like adults. Part of my effort is to show the complexity of human behavior," he says. "You can interpret everything in different ways. I try to let people work it out."
On Aug. 28, PBS will present the first national broadcast of Wiseman's 1969 classic documentary, "High School" (check local listings). Earlier this week, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, kicked off an eight-month retrospective of Wiseman's films.
The 31-film series includes the first three hours of his new work, "Domestic Violence," which will première in September at the Venice Film Festival, and will screen in London and Japan before its theatrical run Jan. 30 at New York City's Film Forum. The six-hour film will air on PBS in two parts next year.
Mr. Wiseman is best known for marathon, scathing probes of mental health, law enforcement, and educational institutions.
"Documentary film often suffers from sort of a bad rap," Wiseman says. "It's thought that it's always meant to be an exposé. But I think, overall, my films are as interested in people being kind and helpful as they are in showing them being cruel. I don't like to play 'gotcha.' It's as important to show people doing good things as it is to show them doing so-called bad things."
Because of their length - sometimes six hours - his discursive panoramas have drawn more honors than viewers. He makes no apologies.
"I feel that I have an obligation to the people who gave me permission to make my films to present extraordinarily complicated situations, and that's one of the reasons they're long."
"High School's" portrait of conformity versus individualism is standard viewing in college sociology and education courses. "Titicut Follies," which he made as a law professor to document treatment of the criminally insane at Massachusetts' Bridgewater State Prison, has been credited with sparking wide-ranging reforms.
Wiseman claims neither influence nor objectivity. Slumped on a worn sofa in his spartan editing room, surrounded by film cans and "Domestic Violence" shot lists, he says, "I have no idea how you measure the impact of a film. You're only one of many sources of information. To isolate out one thing, and to say 'This caused that' would be totally presumptuous."
Wiseman also knows that his patient portraits of daily life can't tell the whole story. "I'm biased and prejudiced. My point of view is not obscure; it's expressed indirectly, as in a novel.... I try very hard to provide context, but I'm hesitant to say, 'I know what's going on.' I just say, 'That's the way I think it is.' You stay at a place six weeks. You could stay for six years."
Over 34 years of thrusting viewers into the middle of everything from luxury resorts to missile sites, Wiseman hasn't changed editing techniques. He records his own sound, directs a cameraman, and spends eight to 12 months selecting about 3 percent of the footage from hundreds of hours of film.
Although his later works use more cutaways, wide shots, and transitions, Wiseman forces audiences to draw their own conclusions about what they see. "I think it's great" when someone on the "other side of all (my) value issues" likes a film, he says.
While others embrace electronic editing, Wiseman still labors over a vintage manual "flat bed" machine.
"I'm probably frightened of all of the new digital stuff," he says. "It's faster, but speed is not necessarily a value. This gives me time to think."
In September, he goes to Paris to direct "The Last Letter," which he adapted for La Comedie-Francaise, one of France's oldest theater companies, from Vassily Grossman's epic novel "Life and Fate."
Meanwhile, he's editing the second three hours of "Domestic Violence," for which he shot 110 hours of film of police stations, courts, and women's shelters in Tampa, Fla.
Wiseman also hopes to direct more plays, some of which he might adapt from novels. Whatever the medium, the director plans to stick to his one-production-a-year schedule. In the deadpan manner of his films, he says, "I try to keep busy."
The Frederick Wiseman retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, runs through April 14, 2002. For more information, visit www.mfa.org/film or call 617-369-3907.