December 16, 2020

Frederick Wiseman, acclaimed documentary filmmaker of City Hall, Titticut Follies, High School, Hospital, and more

Frederick Wiseman has proven that, in his words, “if you hang around long enough, you can collect enough material and cut a dramatic narrative film out of real life.” A Frederick Wiseman documentary has a very specific style- there is no narration, no identifying lower-third captions, no interviews and no camera movement. The viewer simply watches the story unfold, as a slice of life, and the subject he chooses is usually an institution many might consider mundane and everyday. Frederick feels his films are not merely observational, because he makes decisions on how to sculpt them into a narrative during the editing process. He enjoys making documentary films because he’s seen that there is enough comedy and drama in ordinary life to match anything you’d find in fiction. Frederick shies away from the terms “documentary” and “cinema verité”- he thinks the term movie is good enough because “documentary” is something that sounds like it’s supposed to be good for you.

For Frederick’s latest film, City Hall, he had the idea that what happens in a city hall might make an interesting movie and to see inside the machinery of how a city runs. Boston City Hall happened to be the only one that gave him permission. A staffer of the mayor had seen his films and liked the idea. Unlike some of Frederick’s other movies, Boston mayor Marty Walsh was a central character- mainly because he is the leader of the city and he is very involved in seeing that it runs smoothly.

Before he became a director, Frederick was a lawyer and taught at law school. He always wanted to be a director, but had no experience with movies. He saw an opportunity to become a producer when he optioned a novel called The Cool World and asked director Shirley Clark to helm it, which helped demystify the process for him. For his first documentary, Titticut Follies, Frederick had the idea for shooting the documentary on the Bridgewater Prison for the Criminally Insane because he knew the warden from his years as a lawyer and was able to get access and permission. The next logical progression to him after shooting in a prison for the insane seemed to be a high school, so his next film was High School. Part of Frederick’s process is to find the film as he shoots, and he goes into it purposefully blind and with little preparation. For him, it all emerges in the editing process. Frederick always does his own editing and watches each piece of footage-generally about 150 hours of it- and decides how to structure each sequence.

Find Frederick Wiseman: http://www.zipporah.com/

See Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary, City Hall. It’s available streaming through virtual cinemas, and comes to PBS on December 22. Find a screening near you. Paying to stream it through your local arthouse cinema helps support them!

You can see almost all of Wiseman’s documentaries on Kanopy for free with your library card.

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com/ep105/

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