Fred Wiseman

by Kaleem Aftab & Alexandra Weltz

Fred Wiseman is one of the most influential and prolific figures in documentary filmmaking. He started filming in the mid 1960s when advances in camera technology revolutionised the documentary method by enabling the synchronised recording of image and sound. Since then he has directed over 25 documentary films, mainly for WNET Channel 13 in New York and one fiction film, Seraphita's Diary (1982). Wiseman is very much the silent auteur. His films are marked by an absence of commentary or music and there are no direct interviews to camera. This style, being an observational approach, was picked upon as marking a distinction between the boundary of reality and fiction on celluloid, and was placed in the emerging school of Direct Cinema or Cinema Verite.

In his films Wiseman tends to look at American society and its functioning, as it is portrayed or mirrored in state institutions. Some of the best-known subjects he has tackled include High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1971), Welfare (1975), Multi-Handicapped (1987), High School II (1994), and Public Housing (1997). The films display a void between the administrators of the institutions and the populous in need of the service. This is perhaps best illustrated in the 'High School' films in which several months of school life are compressed into one day, with the imaginable comic results. Here the official ideology in which public schools are proclaimed the embodiment of an egalitarianism ideally designed to level the differences between rich and poor is contrasted to images of bored, un-enthused students rebelling against the pomposities of their instructors. Yet character portraits do not preoccupy the films, which slice through the authoritarian mannerisms of state institutions with a systematic critique. The refusal to sensationalise through direct questioning, voice-overs and numerous cuts of the subject matter only adds to the idea that what is being presented holds an inner truth. His latest film, Belfast, Maine, takes on a broader scope, yet it is definitely a Wiseman film carrying all of his usual characteristics. The film is a reversal in that it shows how the community deals with institutions rather than the vice versa, exposing how one of Maine's poorest towns deals with high unemployment and low aspirations through an arbitrary lens. The work of Fred Wiseman will be the subject of two retrospectives in the UK this year. The first being at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival followed in October by an appraisal of his work by the NFT.


KA & AW: You have been described as a 'master of observational cinema' most recently in the programme for the London Film Festival. Do you think that this is an apt title?

FW: I started making these movies just a few years after technical advances made it possible to shoot synchronised sound documentaries with available light. It seemed to me that America was an undiscovered country from the point of view of documentary film. There are a lot of good subjects, in fact millions of them and the effort was to make movies about common, everyday experiences. If I was lucky enough and hung around long enough you can get some very funny things, sad things, benign things in ordinary experience that if they were scripted you'd think that the script writer had an amazing imagination. Not that I thought it through that completely at the time and I guess it's now a process of retroactive rationalisation. What I try to do is edit the films so that they will have a dramatic structure, that is why I object to some extent to the term observational cinema or cinema verite, because observational cinema to me at least connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another and that is not true. At least that is not true for me and cinema verite is just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I'm concerned. The effort is to be selective about your observations and organise them into a dramatic structure. Why do you think that America, given its film history, was an untapped market in terms of documentary films? I was not the first one to make documentaries in America; there are lots of documentary makers who were before me. Leacock, Pennebaker, (Tim Lipskin, Al Mazel and Will Van Dyke I could not check the names, maybe better leave them out?). They all started a bit before I did some in the '30s in America and as old as I am I can't say that I am the father of American documentary. There were documentary filmmakers interested in making films not about the same subjects but using the same technical facilities. What separates me from others and them from me is our choice of subject matter. A lot of American documentary filmmakers before me made films where people got followed around but they made them about one person, or a small group of people. What I chose to do was to make the place the star rather than one person.

KA & AW: How did you see yourself being different and developing documentary in America?

FW: It's partially related to the fact, and I still think it's true, that America is largely unexplored. What I chose to do was make films about institutions, not because I had a specific interest in an institution but rather because an institution provided a boundary. It served the same function as the lines of a tennis court. I simply saw whatever went on in the confines of that building or that limited geographical location as appropriate to the film and anything outside isn't. Rather than have a diffuse look at a wide area, it is to have an intense look at one place.

KA & AW:How much of a grip on reality can you get when you make documentaries? By having a dramatic structure, do you feel that the cutting and editing process makes you create some sort of fiction?

FW: Of course. The final film resembles fiction although it is based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions. I don't manipulate the events, but the editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative, not in the sense that people do things differently from what they will ordinarily do, but the way that people are shot. First of all what you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it.

KA & AW: Doesn't the fact of a camera being at the scene change the filmed situations also?

FW: That's another issue because I don't think that the camera really changes the way that people behave. All of those things that I just mentioned represent subjective choices that you have to make. Particularly the organisation of a film is arbitrary not in the sense that you throw the film up the stairs and wherever it lands is the order of the film, but arbitrary in the sense that it represents deliberate choices. For instance in the Belfast movie I had 110 hours of material. I was there for eight weeks and of the 110 hours I shot, I only used 4 hours - near nothing. The compression within a sequence represents choice and then the way the sequences are arranged in relationship to the other represents choice.

KA & AW: Why do you think the camera doesn't affect peoples behaviour when surely their sensibility changes?

FW: How do you know that? I don't know about your experiences, but people who have been in my movies - because I have asked them about this - they may be conscious of the fact that their picture is being taken. If they change their behaviour, they change it in the way of saying I don't want my picture taken. If they agree to have their picture taken... most of us in life don't have the capacity to act differently. I mean when your friends are taking a picture and you don't like it, you feel self conscious and may clown around but that in my experience or at least with the people I have been dealing with in my movies they don't do that. If they do, that is a way of saying don't take my picture.

KA & AW: Do you think that people get used to the camera being there?

FW:Well often the first time you see them is the moment of shooting. It depends on the situation. For example, I made a film about a welfare centre a long time ago and while the workers in the centre knew that there was a movie being made, the clients just walked through the door. There is some extraordinary things in that movie and I did not create the events but the fact is that the clients were not bothered and it did not interfere with what they said. All this of course is subjective, but there is a variety of checks that at least I think confirm my view of it. When you are making one of these movies most of the time you are hanging around, you're not shooting. But the camera is always there because you have to be ready to shoot. Part of the technique is to be able to go at least at a seconds notice and the mike is always prominent. It's quite funny to watch and it's amazing - people will do anything. Often you see a lot of the same people you have shot in a previous sequence or you will subsequently shoot, and you are listening, observing, what they are saying and doing. Their behaviour is not different, whether the camera is on or off.

KA & AW: How do you get the subjects to reveal aspects of their lives in front of your camera?

FW: Because I don't ask them to do anything. All I ask permission for is to be present when they are going ahead doing what they ordinarily would be doing when I'm not there.

KA & AW:You don't feel that you have to be there for a certain amount of time before the subject is comfortable with your presence?

FW: In a few instances I have been there before filming. For example when I did a movie about the 'Comedie Francaise' I was around for a couple of months before the shooting. Not to get people accustomed to the idea of the movie but to get permission to make the movie. More often I'm only at the place a day or at most two days before the shooting starts. Even then I generally only meet the staff because often the other characters are not there. For example my film about the welfare state was in New York. It would have been hard to notify all the people on welfare that I was going to film a movie.

KA & AW: When you watch the films, you can see that they are intended to speak for themselves, there is no voice-over or other distorting technic, as if they try to stay as objective as possible. A lot of these films were an insight look into government institutions and the way they work. Surely you had some intentions or pre-assumptions about showing such an insight into American society?

FW: For sure the films are comments, but whatever the comment is, is the film. If I can make the comment in 25 words or less then I should not have made the movie. A lot of the movies have been about the relationship between the individual and the state as has been expressed through public institutions, but I hope that I don't make whatever the comment is a simple one.

KA & AW: What was it about High Schools that made you go back and shoot another one. Was this because you felt you missed something the first time around?

FW:No. You always miss something. It is a completely different kind of high school. The first high school was all white, with 4,000 students in Philadelphia. There were 12 black students. High school 2 was done in Spanish Harlem in a high school where there were only 225 students. It was 45 percent black and 45 percent Hispanic and 10 percent white and other. The educational philosophy was completely different. It was much more orientated around the ethnic backgrounds of the students. It's really two different worlds. It was not a question of seeing where High School education was at 25 years later. It was just looking at another experience.

KA & AW: Do you not feel that the change in emphasis on what you wanted to shoot was evocative of a change in American society?

FW: I'm a bit weary of that, because I'm not too good at cultural generalisations. I mean it is up to other people who know a lot more about education than I do, because really what I know is my own experience having gone to school and having been to various high schools. I was struck by the fact that the first high school movie was made in 1968 and I still meet people who have seen the film saying it's just like their high school. They have graduated from high school any time from the 1920s to the 1990s. Which I find sort of sad, and funny and amazing. In the second high school film the school had a more experimental curriculum. I have no idea how common that kind of curriculum is. I would guess that similar kinds of things are being tried in other major American cities where there are substantial minority populations.

KA & AW: How do you try and represent the relationship between the individual and the state?

FW: That is perhaps a pompous and abstract statement that I made. Just in the ordinary sense that a High School is a state institution. When you see what goes on in a high school, presumably the teachers in a high school feel that they have...its not that the abstract of the state is imposing on them .....the teachers have a certain view of what their moral, ethical and educational responsibilities are toward the students. Since they are employees of the state... I don't believe in the state in the big brother sense... that is necessarily... that God sends out a message that you have to do this or other thing, but there are certain guidelines that the Board of City Education or the Federal department sets out, which may or may not be conflicting and the teachers all have a sense of what there responsibility is toward the young minds and helping people get an education. In the sense that high school is a state institution and one of the things that I'm interested in and was interested in, in both high school films, is the values that are expressed on the assumption that those are common values. At least common to the high school and at least to other places.

KA & AW: You are very prolific in your filmmaking, finishing one film and moving onto the other.As you're filming do you develop ideas for your next project and are they always institutional based?

FW: I always have a list of films I want to make.

KA & AW:And the institution?

FW: I don't have a very precise definition, because almost every limited subject can qualify, by my definition.

KA & AW: So what made you choose to have an observational look at a small town like Belfast, Maine?

FW: Well because small towns and small cities are very characteristic of American life. It is something I wanted to do for a long time. It seemed to me to be a natural extension of the things that I have been doing.

KA & AW:What was it that was specific about Belfast, Maine that made it a place that you wanted to choose, rather than another similar town or city. Was it a random choice?

FW: It wasn't random in the sense that I rolled a dice. I happen to spend three of four months a year near Belfast, so I knew the town and it's a beautiful old town near the water. It was shot in the fall.

KA & AW:You made one fiction film and no more, why was that?

FW: I have written some scripts for other fiction films, but I haven't got the money to make them. You need a lot more money for these films. I did not try to raise the money independently like when I make documentaries. I went right to traditional industry sources and they were not interested because the films were not very commercial. I did not have the stomach to go looking around at individual investors as I would have needed two or three million dollars 15 years ago

KA & AW: How much does it cost to make one of your documentaries?

FW: When I first started it was about $60,000. Now it is about $400,000 or $500,000. The change is only due to inflation.

KA & AW: Are you government funded?

FW: The money comes from a variety of sources and not always the same source. Some of it comes from Public Broadcast Service (PBS), some of it comes from Corporation of Public Broadcasting which is another entity of the PBS. For Belfast it came from those two sources plus the national endowment of the arts. Sometimes I get money from foundations. There are three or four foundations in America that give money for film. But it is still hard to raise the funding. It takes a lot of time and effort to get the money. As long as I can get the money I make the film.

KA & AW: Direct Cinema came about because of technical innovation. How do you feel about the possibilities offered by the digital medium, especially cost wise?

FW: You almost answer your own question... because it is a lot cheaper. The quality is not quite as good, but it is going to mean that a lot more people have an opportunity to make their films. It remains to be seen whether a lot more good films will be made, because the technical advances don't necessary mean quality.

KA & AW: Does it have any influence on your films?

FW: Not so far. It depends what you mean by influence. If I cannot raise the money to continue shooting in 16mm the fact that I cannot raise the money will mean that I will have to go to one of the newer technologies. To the extent that I can get money to continue doing what I have previously been doing it will not have an effect at all. I still edit on a Steenbeck, I don't use an Avid. I can't afford an Avid and also I don't need all the things that an Avid has because I don't do fades or dissolves. I don't mind taking the time to find material or rewinding. I like handling the film as it gives a chance to think about the material. I know guys who used to edit on Steenbecks or the 16mm equivalent who switched to Avids and some say its great and others they don't like it.

KA & AW: But you never thought of changing your style of work by adapting to these new technologies?

FW: I'm not sure how it would change it. In terms of access to materials I'm not sure that it will change it at all, in terms of how it was shot, maybe, but not really because there are certain stylistic things that I like and I don't know if I would change them if I had a camera the size of my hand.

KA & AW:Do you think it will change the way documentaries or films in general are shot, since historically changes were often brought about by new technologies?

FW: I think all films are shot differently depending on the point of view of the persons doing it. Depending on your point of view you could say that it would make a difference to democratisation of cinema. Or you could say that a lot more mindless movies are going to be made or a few good ones. It depends if you want to be snotty or not. It remains to be seen. I would not predict it. Certainly a lot more movies will be made.

KA & AW:Talking of greater democratisation of cinema, what do you think of the Dogma '95 movement?

FW: I think that those guys have a great sense of humour. They have hit on an idea that got them an enormous amount of attention and publicity. It is a masterstroke of PR.

KA & AW:Rather than a film doctrine?

FW: If they really believe it... I don't see why people should not use whatever technology is available to make as good a film as they can. It's true that because of the fast film stock and because of the available light you can shoot under any circumstances and that's great. But since film is about light, if you can augment the light and get better quality I don't see why you shouldn't do that. I think that the whole notion about having rigid rules to filmmaking is ridiculous. As far as I'm concerned, film is about what the picture looks like. The ideological roots of the film I really don't care about. When I read their pronouncements I assumed that they were comedians...

KA & AW: Do you not think that the Dogma '95 manifesto makes movies more like Direct Cinema, using similar techniques and mimicking a documentary style?

FW: If by movies you mean traditional things like script and cast. They are adapting documentary techniques to movies. If you think that a movie is anything that works on celluloid then it makes no difference what the technique is.

KA & AW: You say that you don't like the term observation cinema or Cinema Verite, so how would you coin your own films?

FW: Movies... documentary movies... whatever that means.

KA & AW:What do you think about docu-soaps and their increasing presence on Television?

FW: I've never seen any. I have heard of them.

KA & AW: How come?

FW:Because I don't live here.

KA & AW:They have them in America...

FW:You're right, I don't watch television.

KA & AW: Why not?

FW:Because one, it's a matter of time, because I work a lot and two, because when I have the time, I would rather read. If I watch TV it is usually to watch Basketball or Tennis. I don't even watch other documentary films.

KA & AW:Is there not a curiosity to watch a docu-soap and see how they use reality to create drama using a far greater fictionalised editing process than in your films?

FW: I suppose maybe I'm not curious. I did not even know they were on in America.

KA & AW: Don't you think that there might be a change in the view on documentaries and how much reality they are really representing by creating a confusion between the documentary and fiction format. Does the crossing over of the genres make a difference to this?

FW: Difference in what sense? It does not make a difference in that I have an interest in controlling it. The idea that it can be controlled is ridiculous. It will be up to the viewer to sort their way through it. I guess that I have a sense that most people know when they are being conned and they can tell the difference between staged and un-staged events. Its not that some really good filmmakers can't do things that appear to be un-staged but are staged, ultimately they will give the game away because they want to take credit for it. I don't think people are that stupid.

KA & AW: It's not really about being stupid though. For some people how they perceive the world is through television...

FW: How do you know that? Television is seen as impartial, but how do I know that things I see on television are really happening as I see them?

KA & AW: Does that mean your experience of what the world is like is by watching television and not your own experience ?

FW: In some parts of the world...

KA & AW: Do you not measure the perception of people you meet against what you are told on television?

FW: Some parts of the world I have never been to. For example the Gulf War is an example of how people's consciousness happened on the television.

KA & AW: But the Gulf War was also covered by print journalism?

FW: For sure but the first source of information is television for a lot of people. So what is the point you are trying to make?

KA & AW:It gets back to the distortion of fact and fiction. By showing something as real and not acknowledging the auteur, does that not bend peoples perceptions as an audience?

FW: I don't know how anybody ever knows what the audience are thinking. Everyone talking about audience... maybe if they are doing focus groups or using marketing techniques that are being used in television and the movies, they may have some idea. When I'm editing I can't think of the audience, I have a hard enough time making up my own mind and figuring out what I think. How can I possible anticipate what you are going to think of Belfast, Maine, without knowing if you are ever going to see Belfast, Maine. If I'm sitting in Maine or Boston editing the movie, how can I possible know what the spectators reaction is going to be, what there view is going to be if they come from outside America, what they know about America and what they know about small town America. It's impossible. So the only standard I can have is my own judgement, whether it be good or bad.

KA & AW:You said you chose Belfast, Maine as it was a representation of small town America?

FW: Again, I don't even know that. I said that I hoped it would be like other towns. I haven't spent time in these other towns. Other people who have spent a lot of time in other small towns might say, oh yeah this is very common.

KA & AW: You have to admit that going through four or five hours of footage is quite challenging to the spectator. Why do you not make your documentaries more accessible to the general public by making them a bit shorter?

FW: It's because I feel that I have an obligation to the people who have given me permission to make the film. To make a film that accurately reflects what I am feeling about the subject matter. Belfast is a complicated place and even four hours fails to suggest the complexity of it. If somebody thinks it is boring and too long they are not obliged to stay. If they are interested they will stay. Again, it is part of the whole issue of not knowing how to calculate or assess the interest of the audience. Should I cater to an audience that has been brought up on MTV and video games? Why? I was not brought up that way and it does not particularly interest me. I think that it's ultimately condescending because if I assume that the audience only wants something like MTV or video games that assumes that they are all idiots. Or more or less idiots. It's not necessarily idiots who watch MTV.

KA & AW: Does the form control the content?

FW: Again I have a limited experience. I can't think of anything that I have seen, and again that is very limited, that has been any good in that style. What I have seen has always been extraordinarily superficial and basically mindless. If I were to adapt my interests to that technique with the idea of reaching people who are only interested in that style, it would be condescending and it will not be fair to the people who has given me permission to use their life experience in the movie. A life experience is not like MTV. Even Belfast has a lot more cuts than my other films, it has something like 3,600 cuts which is an enormous number for a documentary film. So in one sense it is my MTV movie because there are so many cuts.

KA & AW: Are your films shown on TV?

FW: Yes. Belfast was shown on prime time in America on February 4.

KA & AW: All at once or in parts?

FW:All at once.

KA & AW: Was there breaks for commercials?

FW: No. It's on public service television and there are no commercials. So it started at 9pm and finished at 1am. I did a longer film called Near Death which is six hours and that was shown in one show in America and France and Germany.

KA & AW: Do you stipulate that you want your film shown in one sitting?

FW: I have complete editorial control. In that I have the right to turn down the broadcast. I insist on that contractually so that they can't split the film even if they wanted to. I fight very hard for these rights and I ask for it. It's important because it screws up the film. Even here at the London Film Festival there is a half hour intermission that did not appeal to me very much. It is a risk that people will get out of the movie.

KA & AW: Will knowing that you are in the cinema for four hours straight change your experience?

FW: To the extent that your mind is in the movie and you don't go out and have a coffee and escape from the film.


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