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2002 Lifetime Achievement Award: Frederick Wiseman

Come Think With Me
A Tribute to Frederick Wiseman

Co-presented by the Cinematheque Ontario

Intelligent, discerning, and thoughtful documentary filmmakers are lauded for many reasons. For starters, they often craft their brave and socially conscious films amid a paucity of funding, making their work’s appearance on the screen all the more wonderous. Add to this a necessary degree of topical relevance and a keen sense of moral justice, and the praise is so easy to heap upon them that it too often becomes a platitude. Yet there’s an exceptional quality in the work of Frederick Wiseman which demands attention and sets him apart from others: by his steadfast commitment to a style of silent, unobtrusive and unprejudiced observation, it’s clear that Wiseman fundamentally believes in the capacity of his audience to be just as intelligent, discerning and thoughtful as he.

This faith in others’ ability to think critically for themselves was evident several years before Wiseman picked up a camera. In 1958, four years after graduating from Yale Law School, he became a Lecturer-in-Law at Boston University, where his teaching subjects included psychiatry & the law and legal medicine. It wasn’t long before he started organizing field trips: “I thought it would be more interesting, for the course as well as for me, if I took my students on visits to places that, either as prosecutors they might be sending people, or as defence attorneys their clients might end up. So I took them to trials and parole board and probation hearings, and to hospitals and prisons. I still quite vividly remember the first time I went to Bridgewater.”

Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, in Massachusetts, would several years later become the setting for Wiseman’s acclaimed first documentary, Titicut Follies. With permission from the hospital’s superintendent *whom he knew from his days as a lecturer). Wiseman set about to meet the inhabitants of Bridgewater. Before filming any inmate, however, he would explain the purpose of his film and record a statement of consent on camera. It was also agreed that “no people would be photographed who [did] not have the competency to give a release.” In other words, Wiseman – well trained in law – had the utmost respect for the rights of his subjects. Yet the chilling images he captured on film made it clear that the state did not, and the laughable, lamentable, and horrifying practices of Bridgewater’s medical professionals and administrators seemed destined (at last) to be brought to light.

In the fall of 1967, the film premiered at New York Film Festival to spectacular critical reviews, and was soon in limited commercial release in New York State. But there were those in Massachusetts (at many levels of government) for whom the film was an obvious embarrassment. Charging that Wiseman had violated the right to privacy of Bridgewater’s inmates, a series of restraining orders and court injunctions succeeded in suppressing his film’s further release for more that 20 years. At the same time, the tabloid press was encouraged to run headline-grabbing smear campaigns on the film, appealing to a puritanical sensibility by (falsely) denouncing Wiseman’s use of a hidden camera, accusing him of shamelessly creating a “shockumentary” so as to earn a quick buck, and objecting to the inclusion of shots in which elderly and insane inmates were shown naked (as if such images were to be construed as another more than gratuitous titillation). In fact, the legislators and the press created such a thoughtlessly absurd ruckus that the few sensible voices who remained – tirelessly fighting to improve the conditions at Bridgewater – were all but drowned out. Although Titicut Follies was unjustly grounded, its brief and bold appearance in New York nevertheless launched Wiseman’s career. He would go on to create an average of one film per year for over three decades, culminating in his latest, Domestic Violence (2001). His subject matter has proven to be consistently brave, his approach invariably direct. A year after Titicut Follies, Wiseman released High School (1968), a record of the daily activities of a large, urban secondary school in which conformity was the first lesson: “We are out to establish that you are a man and that you can take orders.” Following that came the Emmy Award-winning Law and Order (1969), documenting the daily struggle of police officers as they tried to make sense of an endless array of situations they simply hadn’t the skills or authority to resolve. Then came Hospital (1969), which won two Emmys: one for Best News Documentary and the other for Best Director. Following that was Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court (1973), Welfare (1975). And Meat (1976). Every title – blunt and impartial – invited its audiences to sharpen and shape the subject according to their own critical approach. Wiseman refused to pass judgement; refused to be heavy-handed. He let every topic unfold slowly, deliberately, fairly. He showed all sides of every issue. He encouraged us to draw our own conclusions.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Wiseman never veered off course. As Richard Zoglin wrote in Time magazine, his films consistently examined “the way people cope with the stress, dislocation and institutional indifference of American life.” The titles alone are enough to evoke a myriad of images, anecdotes, facts and assumptions: Model (1980); Blind (1986); Deaf (1986); Missile (1987); Zoo (1993); Public Housing (1997). It’s their sparseness that piques our curiosity, draws us toward the screen, dares us to verify and validate our own experiences against the definitive contact we know Wiseman can provide. He makes us hungry for the details; eager for the opportunity to learn.

Hot Docs is proud to present this retrospective of Federick Wiseman’s work in collaboration with Cinematheque Ontario, and to confer on him our 2002 Lifetime Achievement Award. In an era fraught with preposterous advertising, obnoxious pundits, stunted democracy, and rampant corporatization, Wiseman’s is an unwavering vision of solemn portraiture, authentic observation, unassailable reason, and profound love. As always, his unvarnished films serve as open invitations to face the challenges of modernity directly, to shoulder bravely through the sound-bytes and the sensationalism in order to arrive at a richer and more comprehensive understanding of that which afflicts us. With every film, Wiseman holds out towards his audience a steady hand, palm up. His sagacious eyes look on us without condescension, “Come,” he beckons. “Come think with me.”

Shawn Postoff Managing Editor

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