The Documentarian: An Interview with Frederick Wiseman

EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews,
Cinema’s preeminent documentary filmmaker on his two latest triumphs, At Berkeley and National Gallery.

Frederick Wiseman is a documentary pioneer. His films from the 1960s onwards capture a huge variety of institutions and the people who inhabit them. They contain no exposition or literal explanations, leading some to consider him at the forefront of ‘direct cinema’ or cinéma-vérité, cinema that ‘captures’ real life in an objective manner. Wiseman has rejected these labels, arguing that his films are a product of the subjective processes of editing and choosing what to film. Despite being in his 80s, his output hasn’t slowed, and he’s represented in this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival with two quite different documentaries: National Gallery, a contemplative, immersive look at the famous London museum, and At Berkeley, a film that examines the Californian university and the tensions between balancing the books, keeping education affordable, and maintaining the required research. Illustration by Hikalu Clarke.

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FREDERICK WISEMAN: I’ve always been interested since I was a child. Like everybody else of my age, I was interested in writing. I went through my Hemingway, Fitzgerald phase. I didn’t write anything. I was interested in movies and started to make Super 8 movies in Paris in the ’50s, reached the witching age of 30, decided I better do something professionally that I liked and started to make documentaries.

BG: When you made Titicut Follies (1967), did you ever imagine you would have a career out of it?

FW: I’d hoped I would have a career out of it, it was all fantasy land. I didn’t know what the material was. I worked quite hard to make it happen.

BG: Could you ever have predicted the stir that Titicut Follies caused? (The documentary about an institution for the “criminally insane” became the first film to be banned in the United States for reasons other than obscenity or national security. The state governor complained after Wiseman captured footage of torture, force-feeding, and bullying, and obtained an injunction against the film, which lasted until 1991.)

FW: No, I was completely taken by surprise by that. I thought I had permission from all the relevant parties. I didn’t imagine they would turn against me. But also, I was still quite naïve.

BG: Your films have frequently focused on institutions, and each institution seems to have its own internal logic. How apparent is this logic to you when you start filming?

FW: It’s something that emerges when I start studying the rushes and thinking about the experience I had when I was at the place. I have no idea what the internal rhythm is of the place before I start. And it’s only by spending whatever period of time I’m at the place for the shooting, and then over the course of the next eight to twelve months studying the rushes in order to make a film, do I discover what the themes of a film are and what the rhythm of the place is.

img_nationalgallery1BG: You’ve compared your filmmaking process to writing a novel. Is the editing a kind of assembly of language, putting the words together?

FW: Yeah, I do think it’s quite analogous. It’s the opposite of feature filmmaking. In feature filmmaking, you write the script in advance. In my kind of film, you have to study the material and the problems are very similar to the problems of writing. The problem of characterisation, the passage of time, metaphor, abstraction, introducing characters, how you indirectly express a point of view on the material, etc.

BG: I suppose your approach to characterisation is different to ordinary narrative novels. It’s almost as if, to me at least, it’s institutions versus individuals, and how individuals fit in amongst that logic.

FW: I don’t necessarily agree with that. The institution provides a framework and places a geographical and physical limitation as to where things get shot, but to some extent institutions shape the behaviour of some of the individuals, but not necessarily all of them. That’s dependent on how closed the institution is. In Bridgewater in Titicut Follies, it’s a closed institution, and the guards had specific roles and the inmates were in a sense not only imprisoned in Bridgewater but imprisoned by their psychoses. But, in the other extreme, films like Belfast, Maine (1999) or Aspen (1991) or Canal Zone (1977), only in a very broad sense can you describe a town as an institution and shaping the behaviour of the people.

BG: I find your editing approach and the way it operates as almost like montage theory. It’s the opposite of the cinéma-vérité label you hate—it’s the space between the shots which is the interesting part of your films. You leave a lot of space for the audience.

FW: I try to give the audience enough information so they can make up their own mind. I think my point of view is presented indirectly by structure, sequences I choose, and the order in which I place them. I hope my point of view of the material is clear. It’s also usually a fairly complicated point of view.

BG: Do you get frustrated that people expect you to provide answers when they watch the film?

FW: No, I try to make the best film out of the material. Some people understand it and some people don’t. It doesn’t frustrate me. I’m trying to make a movie that meets my own standards. I don’t know how to think about an audience. People who start thinking about an audience immediately dilute their own material to match their fantasy of the lowest common denominator. And I’m not interested in doing that. The only safe assumption for me is the audience is as smart or as dumb as I am.

BG: Your editing process changes with each film?

FW: You have to find the rhythm for each film. Boxing Gym (2010), the sequences are long and it’s cut like a dance. At Berkeley, it’s academics and intellectual issues, the sequences are much longer.

BG: And National Gallery is contemplative.

FW: Right. I have to find the rhythm that’s appropriate for each film. I find that in the editing.

img_nationalgallery2BG: I’m going to ask a few questions about National Gallery. What about that museum attracted you over the other great museums?

FW: Because it’s one of the great museums of the world and it has a fantastic collection that covers the history of painting from the 13th Century to the end of the 19th Century. Compared to the Louvre or the Met or the Prado, it’s small. It has 2400 paintings, but it doesn’t have sculpture or the other art objects those other great museums do. From a film point of view it was more manageable. I think it’s hard to make one film that covered the major aspects of the Louvre or the Prado unless it was a 10 hour movie.

BG: Ordinarily you can’t photograph in the museum. In the film you were able to do so. In what way are people’s experiences mediated by the camera when they’re looking through a camera?

FW: I don’t know. I’m not very good at generalising about people. I hope that the movie gives them some understanding of the collection and some idea of what painting is about and how it’s restored and how people are educated about it, and how a large museum is managed.

BG: It was interesting how stark the juxtaposition is when you have people talking about the art. It’s spine-tingling, versus the marketing speak; it’s almost indecipherable.

The film does look at the intersection between commerce and these higher ideals, which appears to be this pointed criticism in some of your work, particularly of late in this post-GFC climate [e.g. La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, At Berkeley]. Is this more apparent?

FW: Most of my movies are not about places that are marketing something. A couple are. To some extent in National Gallery, the question is who are they trying to attract and what are they trying to help or learn? The different arguments in relation to that are presented in the discussions in several of the staff meetings there.

BG: In At Berkeley there is this tension between this higher ideal of education versus the commercial imperatives that a university has.

FW: It’s not so much a commercial imperative in Berkeley, but the need to balance the books. That’s different from a commercial imperative. If Berkeley had a commercial imperative, it would be marketing its lecturers and its scientists, and those professors who are trying to raise money, they’re doing it for research and the sake of knowledge and helping people or teaching students, not for commercial purposes.

BG: In National Gallery the camera acts like the mirror in Velazquez’s paintings, this self-reflexive tool looking back at the art.

FW: I think you’re right. That’s one of the things the movie’s doing.

BG: For someone like me who has never been to the museum, it gives this feeling of being able to ponder the art.

FW: That’s good. Your saying that says I’ve achieved one of my goals with the movie.

img_atberkeley2BG: I thought I’d move on to At Berkeley. Why did you choose Berkeley, and not any other university?

FW: Berkeley is the best public university in the world. I always try to place, as a subject in the film, a place that’s a good example of its kind, and Berkeley is a great university. I wanted to do a public as opposed to a private university. Harvard is a great private university. Berkeley is a great public university.

BG: For someone from New Zealand, we only have public universities. What kind of difference in America is there between these public and private universities?

FW: The principal difference is private universities have a lot more money. Some of them do. Harvard has an endowment of close to $30 billion. Berkeley has an endowment of close to $3 billion. See what I mean? Harvard can generate its own research money and research facilities, but it also seeks it from other sources. The big private universities, the Ivy League, Harvard, Yale, Princeton etc. can have more money available for scholarships. Whereas Berkeley and the state universities have to be more restrained about finding money for scholarships. Also, the tuition is much less. Tuition at Berkeley is about $12,000 a year. Tuition at Harvard is about $50,000 a year.

BG: Obviously access issues of availability for all?

FW: That’s not totally true, as both Berkeley and the rich universities make an effort to have a diverse student population. Admission to Harvard is need blind. They admit students without any inquiry as to their financial capacity to pay the tuition. Those who don’t have the financial capacity, they have a whole range of scholarships.

BG: Given the breadth of knowledge that’s present at Berkeley, how did you decide what would be notable in the filming process? You could probably wander into any classroom and find dynamic things.

FW: I tried to get a wide variety of humanities and sciences. There are 3500 courses offered at Berkeley. I think there are 10 classroom sequences in the film.

BG: Logistically it would have been difficult as it’s a big campus?

FW: Yeah, it is a big campus. I don’t think this film is representative. One of the reasons I called it “At Berkeley”, not “Berkeley” is to suggest it’s not everything at Berkeley, but it’s some things at Berkeley.

img_atberkeley1BG: The protest and its dissection are fascinating in the film. Did you feel empathy with the student position?

FW: Well, I think my point of view towards that is what you see in the film. You can make up your own mind towards that.

BG: How keen are institutions to be involved? Does your reputation precede you?

FW: I had no problem getting permission at Berkeley. I’ve had very little problem for any of the movies I’ve wanted to do. When I approached the chancellor at Berkeley, he thought about it for a day, and said, “Well, Berkeley’s a public institution. What goes on here should be transparent.” He obviously took a risk as anybody does who lets a film crew in. The people at Berkeley liked the film a lot.

BG: Do you find people are more comfortable with cameras than when you first started?

FW: No, I don’t find a difference at all. I know everybody has a camera now and people are more aware of the issues, but in my experience 99% of the people I approach in the films, more than 99%, agree and it’s a minimal problem to get permission. It’s a minimal problem to get permission to photograph people.

BG: How do you maintain fairness? I know it’s one of the key things you focus on.

FW: I simply try to treat people decently in the films. That’s all. It’s very easy to mock somebody. You don’t want somebody else to make a fool of you. It’s not that there aren’t funny things in my movies. I think there are. But the comedy arises from the situation, not the way it’s shot.

BG: How do you interpret the fairness? Does it come from the editing, or your memories  from directing?

FW: It comes from everything. It’s my reflection from being at the place, from what’s available in the rushes, and it’s my general experience. I don’t separate out the editing. The editing is the functioning of my feelings, the way my mind works, my general experience.

BG: You’ve made a lot of films in recent times, the energy’s still there to keep doing it?

FW: Yeah, so far. I’m no longer an adolescent but I still seem to have plenty of energy.

BG: How do you choose what your subject is?

FW: Whatever interests me at the moment. I want to make a film within the context of doing films that are in the very loose definition of an institutional series.

BG: Do you ever see them as speaking to each other?

FW: I don’t know if speaking, but some of them are certainly thematically related. I’ve done some films on small towns: Canal Zone, Belfast, Aspen. I’ve done films that are about hospital and death. I’ve done a lot of films around the themes of violence or law and order, basic training Canal Zone, Missile (1987), Juvenile Court (1973), Titicut Follies, different aspects of violence. Films that deal with aspects of education, High School (1968), High School II (1994), both the ballet films [Ballet (1995) and La Danse (2009)]. I’ve done films about the body and the way the body moves: Basic Training (1971), Ballet, La Danse, Boxing Gym, Crazy Horse (2011). There are lot of different ways of linking the films.

BG: What have you got planned coming up?

FW: I’m just finishing shooting in the next day or two, in an area in one of the New York boroughs, Queens. It’s about a community that has a very diverse ethnic, racial, and cultural population.

ILLUSTRATION © Hikalu Clarke 2014. All Rights Reserved.

At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 2013)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other