The DoubleTake Career Award this year could not fall into more deserving hands than those of the 71-year-old Frederick Wiseman. In 30 years of documentary filmmaking, averaging a movie a year, Wiseman has assembled as impressive a body of work as any filmmaker–documentary or fiction. Wiseman shuns the documentary conventions of narration and interview, and also the term cinema verité, which is often used to describe his work. His films are primarily concerned with everyday life in certain American institutions, as in High School (1969), Public Housing (1997) and Juvenile Court (1973).
Two of his best films are showing at DoubleTake this week: Law and Order (1969) and Domestic Violence (2001). The former chronicles the daily activities of police officers in Kansas City, Mo., during which the officers’ grip on certain communities starts to look almost colonial. This is not Cops, but the real tragedy and comedy of both the officers and the working class residents of Kansas City. The film’s finale–a scene in which a young man on the street is being prevented by the police from seeing his kids–plays out gradually, then cuts jarringly to a perfect image that sums up the film. It’s essential Wiseman, undeniably great filmmaking.
Like most any dramatic scene, however, this one–typical of a Wiseman film–pivots on the axis of the viewer’s empathy. The drama is heightened by a lack of context: Why, exactly, is the man’s wife keeping her children from their father? Wiseman plays a similar trick in his masterpiece Juvenile Court, in which juvenile offenders remain, somehow, sympathetic characters throughout the film. In a recent interview with the Indy, Wiseman claimed that he did not consciously leave out material that might have prevented viewers from empathizing with the juvenile offenders. “I think the sequences you see in the movie are a fair representation of the way the people behaved when I observed them,” he said.
Considering Wiseman’s technique of shooting hundreds of hours of footage per film, however, it seems unlikely that, in this case, he had no footage of juveniles behaving in a way that might threaten viewers’ empathy. But this is part of what makes Wiseman such a fascinating filmmaker: The combination of his subjective viewpoint and stylistic choices that imply a kind of objectivity in his work make for a complex product.
Domestic Violence, coming almost 30 years later, is a continuation of Wiseman’s interest in institutions, as it spends the bulk of its three-plus hours in a shelter for battered women in Tampa, Fla. The film opens with cops on domestic violence beats, then enters the shelter, showing the horror of what many women face, and chronicling the help that they’re offered. But as the film draws to a close, Wiseman leaves the shelter, moving back to coverage of police on their beats, and seemingly irresolvable cases of spousal abuse. While the shelter’s employees seem to be doing their best, the film suggests that it’s probably not enough. The film ends as it began, with shots of the Tampa city skyline, and nothing having changed.
If society is indeed reflected in its institutions, then there is no better cinematic mirror for American life than the films of Frederick Wiseman. He conducted this interview by phone on March 27.
The Independent: Why don’t you use interviews, narration or intertitles in your films?
Frederick Wiseman: Because I think when my films work they work because they place the viewer in the middle of the event and ask the spectator to think through their own relationship to see what they’re seeing and hearing. And narration is too didactic for me. It removes the emotion. And my approach is much more novelistic than it is journalistic.
You’ve talked in the past about how editing is just as manipulative as any other technique in filmmaking. But at the same time, those techniques we just talked about do give some people the impression of a lack of interference. Do you think this is fair to your viewer?
It is a lack of interference in the sense that I don’t stage anything in the films. But I do choose what’s in them and I do choose the way I edit the sequences. Whether “manipulative” is too pejorative a word or whether it’s better to say that everything represents a choice, I do try to be fair. I make a big effort to be fair to the people who give me permission to include them in the film. And being fair means trying to suggest the complexity and the ambiguity of what’s going on.
Have you referred to your films as reality fictions?
Well, I did that once as a joke and it got picked up. I think cinema verité is a very pompous term and I made up the idea of reality fictions when Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood was coming out and there was a lot of talk about “nonfiction fiction.” So I was just making a joke when I said that my films were reality fictions. I don’t make any effort to characterize them other than as movies.
Are there any fiction filmmakers whom you particularly admire?
Of course: Vertov, Truffaut, Godard, Renoir, Bergman, Rossellini, De Sica, Von Stroheim, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers.
Why aren’t your films commercially available?
They are. They’re not available in video stores because they’re sold to schools and colleges. I wouldn’t make any money if they were sold in video stores because no video distributor has yet made me a decent offer for them.
The final sequences of your films are usually packed with a real dramatic efficacy, but you rarely end with a shot from that sequence. You usually follow up with one or two shots of street scenes or just people walking. Why is that?
I always try to end it in a way that I think is dramatic. But it’s not always the same kind of ending. The ending is frequently a sequence that summarizes some of the principle issues, the thematic issues the film has been dealing with.
But at the end of Juvenile Court, I was almost shocked that you didn’t end with the door shutting after everyone filed out. You cut to two girls walking down the sidewalk.
That’s just a suggestion that ordinary life goes on and people continue to go about their daily business.
Do you ever get worried about your perspective as a white filmmaker when you portray black communities?
No. Because all these communities are different for me. I do the best I can with all of them. I don’t think that only blacks can make films about blacks any more than only whites can make films about whites.
If I’m not mistaken, Law and Order starts with mug shots of all white people even though the film splits time between blacks and whites pretty evenly. I thought this might be a way to consciously prevent a racist viewing of the film.
No. I’m not interested in making a politically correct thing. I cut it the way I think is appropriate for the material.
Whose documentaries do you like?
There are a lot of documentary filmmakers that I like. But if I were to single out one it would be Marcel Ophuls [The Sorrow and the Pity, Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie].
Do you try to make your films entertaining?
Well, I think a lot of them are funny. But not entertaining in the popular culture sense of the term entertaining. I work quite hard on the dramatic structure of those films.
Law and Order will be screened Friday, April 5 at 11:45 a.m. Frederick Wiseman will be presented with the Career Award that evening at 7 p.m., followed by a screening of Domestic Violence, at 9:15 p.m. All events take place at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.