Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman (1930, Boston, Massachusetts) is considered one of the most important representatives of Direct Cinema: he observes and registers without comment or interviews.
Incidentally, Wiseman disagrees with Direct Cinema's pursuit of the objective reality, because according to him, film is by definition personal and subjective. Wiseman was a law teacher before he started making documentaries. He made his debut in 1967 with Titicut Follies, about a psychiatric clinic for convicted criminals. Many of his later films, such as High School (1968), Hospital (1970) and Near Death (1989) are also studies of social relations in different institutions. He also portrayed renowned institutions such as the London National Gallery, the University of California at Berkeley and the New York Public Library. He is known for filming a lot: an average of 120 to 140 hours of raw material. Wiseman was at IDFA there from the beginning; he was the first jury chairman in 1988 and participated in a debate on direct cinema during IDFA in 2004. In 2009, IDFA dedicated a retrospective to him and he received the Living Legend Award. Wiseman also directed a number of plays, including for the Comédie Française in Paris.
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High School II
In the film HIGH SCHOOL from 1968, Frederick Wiseman drew a depressing portrait of life at a Philadelphia high school. In 1994 he returned to the classroom once more. This time, it was not in Philadelphia but in Spanish Harlem in New York. HIGH SCHOOL II is his nearly four-hour-long report of the six weeks he spent at Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS). CPESS is not an ordinary public high school, since it selects its students, but this does not mean that it is an elite school. The school population consists particularly of latino students. One of the episodes included in the film is made up by the ups and downs of a fifteen-year-old pregnant girl who wants to keep going to school after giving birth. The film pays detailed attention to other students' reactions and their opinions on parenthood, as well as to how the Rodney King case has affected them. In the observing style we know so well from Wiseman, HIGH SCHOOL II elaborately examines the basic philosophy of the school, which puts a lot of emphasis on the promotion of a broad-minded attitude. The students are instilled with a critical mentality, an understanding of the complex social and political relationships within society, and respect for other opinions. This approach has yielded rewards and is by now being followed by other schools. HIGH SCHOOL will be shown in the Reflecting Images programma.
The Panama Canal Zone is controlled by the Americans. Frederick Wiseman got interested in this subject after he had heard a description of the way the Americans staying there held out. They cling to their traditions, values and rituals. "They have bent every effort to create a life that resembles as much as possible life back home. They cling to their values and rituals, however out of step with time and place ..., with the tenacity of those British colonists a century ago who insisted on dressing before dinner in the jungles of India." For nearly three hours Wiseman observes the activities of the Americans: at their daily occupations, business, parties and patriottic rituals.
After his impressive and far-reaching documentary near death, Frederick Wiseman has apparently chosen a more lighthearted subject: one day in Central Park in New York. Wiseman does not show us the nocturnal, dark and notorious sides of this park, but gives an impression of widely divergent events during the daytime. From a wedding ceremony to a 'dinosaur meeting', from a poetry masterclass to a solitary practitioner of Tai Chi. Wiseman observes, unstirred, from a distance. He is an onlooker. In the film, Wiseman literally distances himself from the park when he drives downtown in a cab in search of the people and institutions behind the organization of the park. However, the camera is not as objective as it seems. It selects the subject that we see. Every action that is recorded is designated, almost judged by the film-maker (or is it the spectator's judgement?). Wiseman's product can be regarded as a collection of small documentaries about separate actions, that are all pieces of a complete puzzle. Thus, these individual actions are also meaningful in the film as a whole. Wiseman takes us along to the Gay Parade, invites us to a bombastic speech by former mayor Koch, and to concerts by Midnight Oil and Domingo. We see lonely joggers, fanatical gardeners, and desperate peace fighters. We take part in heated discussions about an old tennis house, we drink a cocktail with some flashy housewives that seem to claim the supervision of Central Park. Wiseman shows these sequences with a stiff dose of irony. The strongly varying pastimes of the first part of the documentary make room for the tough business side and the problem of 'fund-raising'. Here, too, 'money' is the word that makes people move. Central park contains one subject that seems to have been shot with more emotion than all the others: the Quilt, the gigantic spread in Central Park with countless names of AIDS victims on it. The ignorance of a few children looking at the beautiful pieces of cloth is in touching contrast with the intense grief a mother expresses for her son. In his unique style, Frederick Wiseman has produced a refreshing and interpretative film. Central park is a documentary that forces the spectator to look in the mirror, to laugh at himself, and especialy to see the relativity of his actions.
The American town of Aspen is a traditional Western town with a colourful history. In the 19th century it attracted speculators who hoped to strike it rich in the silvermines. At the same time Aspen is modern: now, in the second half of the 20th century, Aspen is a well-known ski resort, visited by people who have the desire and the possibility to show their wealth: corporate and show business celebrities and people who like to associate with them. Both residents and visitors show the extreme sides of our consumption oriented society in their behaviour, clothing and way of life.
ZOO is Frederick Wiseman's realistic, singularly narrated impression of the life in front of and behind the cages of Miami's Metrozoo. The main point of this documentary is the 'operational' aspect of a big zoological garden. Wiseman has eyes for the ostensibly cruel aspects of the work but also shows the staff's dedication to the animals. He combines images of visitors with shots of a keeper who is killing off a rabbit before feeding it to the snakes. Images of the birth of a rhinoceros are followed by the autopsy on the still-born animal. The zoo, in which Wiseman filmed for 42 days, was heavily struck by hurricane Andrew not long after he had finished shooting.
La comédie Française ou l'amour joué
Over the past thirty years documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has conscientiously composed an oeuvre by pointing his camera at traditional institutions like hospitals, police offices and schools. Without giving any comment or taking interviews, he stays in these institutes for a few weeks, in the best tradition of the direct cinema. His selection of organisations is determined by the way in which they reflect society. Obviously, his films are often studies of the balance of power. After having made films about a warehouse, a mental hospital and a military training camp, last year he presented his first film about a cultural institution. In ballet he scrutinised the American Ballet Theatre. This year he completed his film about one of France's oldest repertory companies and the theatre that is the centre of their activities: La Comédie Française. During eight weeks in the winter of 1994?1995 he strayed from the catacombs to high in the gallery of this 300-year-old theatre institute. He was witness to rehearsals, theatre rituals and daily routines. While a cleaning woman is vacuuming the hall, the last run-through takes place on the stage. Behind the curtains a props manager checks if everything is ready, and somewhere else in the building the first reservations are taken. And of course this film contains images of the end product: the play itself. Watching this film that lasts almost four hours, one can almost smell the grease paint, the sweat and the dust, and one is initiated bit by bit into the mystery of the theatre.
The American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is an investigative journalist with a camera or, even better, a superdetective with an unremitting sense of detection. In thirty years time he has made exactly thirty documentaries, in which he followed people in a specific environment over a longer period of time. In the tradition of the "direct cinema" Wiseman does not ask any questions and does not give any comments, and apparently after a few weeks people have grown so used to his presence that they hardly notice the camera anymore. Wiseman used the same approach for PUBLIC HOUSING, a documentary of more than three hours for which he entrenched himself for a number of weeks in a dreary Chicago suburb. Wiseman follows Ida B. Wells, a massive black woman with steamed-up glasses and battered teeth who calls herself "the president of Ida B. Wells Homes". For twenty years she has been working in a scantily furnished office, devoting her life to the homeless people of this area, a black ghetto where policemen and exterminators must turn out every day. Besides showing gross degeneration, Wiseman also shows the activities of the city council, the state and the federal government, and he follows all kinds of training programmes for youngsters. The image of America evoked by Wiseman in PUBLIC HOUSING is reminiscent of a Third World country.
Ballet is Wiseman's twenty?seventh documentary since he started filming twenty?eight years ago. The film is a portrait of the American Ballet Theatre in vintage Wiseman style, with the cinéma vérité approach: the various people involved in the ballet are being followed at their activities, without Wiseman intervening. The first part of the film concentrates on the arduous creative and physical demands made upon the dancers. We get a close look at the working methods of the choreographers. In the second part Wiseman follows the troupe on a European tour, calling in at Athens and Copenhagen. Resplendent images of performances are interspersed with images of the ballet dancers in their daily lives. Ballet is Wiseman's ode to the enchanting world of ballet.
‘Have you been threatened with death?’ and ‘Have you been sexually abused?’, a social worker objectively asks a woman who has just run away from home. All questions are answered affirmatively. Frederick Wiseman took his camera and mingled with a large number of women who have been abused mentally and physically by their husbands and finally had the courage to go to The Spring crisis centre in Tampa, Florida. Wiseman was present during all the stages: in the office with the emergency phone lines, during the apprehension of an offender, the arrival of the ambulance, the police interrogations, the intake interviews, therapeutic sessions, staff meetings at The Spring and the school activities for children in the crisis centre. As always with Wiseman, nobody talks to the camera, but he minutely and extensively registers how the women, after many years of humiliation, start building up a new life.