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Documentary Man

An interview with Frederick Wiseman
By TOM MEEK  |  December 9, 2009


If you think the polemic salvos Michael Moore churns out define the modern documentary, you've either succumbed to Moore's manipulative shenanigans or are unfamiliar with the works of Frederick Wiseman. No disrespect to the Roger & Me director, he is what he is — a man with a camera and a handful of pixie dust trying to convince you that we live in a world where the powers that be will cover up and conspire to screw the little man at every turn — but Wiseman, who's been making documentaries for over 40 years, takes the exact opposite approach. He never appears on camera or interjects from beyond eyeshot. Instead, he observes his subject patiently and artistically and lets the audience draw its own conclusions. 

READJeffrey Gantz's review of La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet.

In his 38 feature-films, Wiseman's subjects have ranged from mental health, to meat-packing and most recently, ballet. One can immediately garner the nature of a Wiseman film from its simple, pointed title. His first film, Titicut Follies (1967) was such a cutting lens into the inmate conditions at the Bridgewater Correctional Facility, that it was banned from being shown in Massachusetts until 1989.

I caught up with Wiseman at his Cambridge studio to discuss his life behind the camera and his latest effort, La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet. The visual moving portrait begins a week-long engagement at the Brattle on December 11 and then moves to the Coolidge Corner Theater on December 18.

The subject matter of your films is pretty diverse, how do you choose what you're going to shoot?
Basically whatever interests me, and a subject I feel I'd like to spend a year studying, within the context of the institutional series I've been doing that is amenable to the technique I use. In other words something that has a minimum amount of action and it has to have the possibility of being interesting. For example State Legislature (2007) tested the limits of the technique because it's very dependent on words. Ballet (1995) is on the other end of the spectrum, because it's more dependent on movement and pictures. Not that the pictures aren't important in State Legislature there's just very little action. So, for example, a scientific lab would not be amenable for this technique, that doesn't mean you couldn't make a good movie about a scientific lab, but you'd have to find another technique, because what was going on [the dialogue and scientific techniques] would not be clear from the pictures and dialogue obtained from just following people.

And that technique is cinéma vérité?
That's not a term that I like. It's a term that people have assigned to me. I would say I more record picture and sound of unstaged events and edit them [together] into a narrative structure.

Have you ever picked a subject of interest and then discovered that it would not marry to your technique?
No. The one time I started a film that I didn't finish had nothing to do with technique; it had to do with the Los Angeles Police. They initially gave me permission to shoot a documentary that ultimately became Law and Order (TV, 1969) and after a week of shooting in LA, I was told I could do anything I wanted except ride around in the police cars. Since there were no foot patrols that seriously cut back on the story. So I went to Kansas City where the department was completely cooperative. So there is nothing that I have started that the technique has not been applicable.

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