This is the age of "reality TV," but don't confuse "Survivor" or "Are You Hot?" with the documentaries of veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. In his 70s, when some would be content in retirement, Wiseman continues to make groundbreaking films, such as the recent "Domestic Violence" and "Domestic Violence 2," premiering on public television next week.
Wiseman's hallmark is to show viewers what he saw and let them draw their own conclusions. There's no narration or captions. Instead, it's life as it is rarely shown on television. "The idea is to cover as many aspects of American life as I can," Wiseman says. "I use an institution as a way of providing a boundary."
His first film, "Titicut Follies," exposed the deplorable conditions of a mental hospital in Bridgewater, Mass. Other titles among his 37 films include, "High School," "Zoo," and "Model."
In his latest documentaries, he focuses on the issue of domestic violence as it is handled in Tampa, Fla. In "Domestic Violence," the focus is on The Spring, a shelter for battered women and children. Since there is no narration, viewers have no barrier between themselves and people telling their stories. Wiseman doesn't offer quick cuts and juicy bits. Instead, we get the whole story in its context.
"Domestic Violence 2" - shot at the same time - in a sense picks up the story (with different people) by showing us how the problem of domestic violence is handled in the court system, from arraignments to hearings over matters including restraining orders and child visitation.
Together, the two films run some six hours, which Wiseman edited down from 110 hours of footage.
When dealing with the police on the street or in the Tampa courts, Wiseman had full cooperation. "There's no question you're completely covered by the First Amendment," he says about filming governmental authority in action. However, for scenes in private homes and at the shelter, permission was required from people who appear in the film.
Wiseman dismisses the Heisenberg uncertainty principle - the theory that the act of observing changes the reality being observed. "My general principle is that the Heisenberg principle doesn't apply.... Most people aren't that good actors." In other words, if subjects played to the camera, it would be obvious.
After filming, it takes Wiseman seven or eight months in the editing room to select what he calls the "candidate sequences." That first assembly of footage is close to what he wants. "It usually comes out to a half hour over the finished film. Then I work on the rhythm."
This raises another misconception about Wiseman's movies: that they are without a point of view and are simply a recording of something that has occurred. If you want to know what he feels about a subject, he suggests, just look at the film. His viewpoint comes across in the material he chooses and how he puts it together. "It's the way one person sees it," he said, dismissing the notion that he has a corner on "the truth."
While Wiseman continues to work on new documentaries, he recently released a dramatic film, "The Last Letter." In it a Jewish Russian doctor (played by French actress Catherine Samie), gives an hour-long monologue in the form of a final letter to her son before her murder by the Nazis. "In a sense 'The Last Letter' is the reverse of a documentary," says Wiseman, who originally directed it as a play. Everything had to be planned in advance."
As for "Domestic Violence," Wiseman says he was touched by the reaction of some of the women who appear in the film. "They were very pleased to be in the film because they thought it was an opportunity to let other women know about their experiences, and they hoped the movie would be of some help to them."