Frederick Wiseman’s award-winning career has spanned over seven decades. He has been described as one of the most important and original filmmakers working today and even a living legend.
Whilst many of Wiseman’s documentaries have been selected to screen at the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) over the years Jenny Neighbour who is the SFF Head Of Programs told City Hub that it was time to honour this filmmaker with a retrospective program.
“He is someone who has had a long career which makes for a good retrospective. He’s 93 years of age and has tirelessly documented all American institutions and communities but I see that as having a real relevance not just in the US but globally. He’s also a tremendous inspiration for documentary makers who hates being called ‘a fly on the wall’. He’s such an invisible presence in his films and his body of work is remarkable.”
For those unaware of Frederick Wiseman, he is an American filmmaker, documentarian and theatre director born to Jewish parents in Massachusetts in 1930. After serving for the US army in the Korean War he took a position at the Boston University Institute of Law and Medicine and began teaching law. He then started making documentaries and has to date produced and directed 46 films, having won many awards.
As part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival discerning movie-goers who enjoy watching insightful and well-crafted documentaries should not miss the Frederick Wiseman Retrospective.
“[Wiseman] has basically documented America and a changing way of life from his very first film Titicut Follies in 1967 and he’s regularly made films with barely more than a couple of years between films. It’s been said that American life is his subject matter and I think it’s that broad sweep of life that makes him such a valued filmmaker,” said Neighbour.
He has filmed documentaries about ballet companies, prisons for the criminally insane, a domestic violence shelter, meat processing plants and also explored the American welfare system
Wiseman’s unique style in filmmaking includes the absence of narration, interviews, background music and his projects namely concern the issues of control and issues of authority. He has homed in on injustice from his very first film. He also works eight to twelve weeks in the institutions and often with little knowledge about the subject before the filming commences. He has stated that ‘the shooting is the research.’
“It’s not how most documentary makers would approach filmmaking,” explained Neighbour. “Most on a project of this scope would do a ton of prep work and research and he does not do that in the same way. He just observes and shapes it in the edit.”
Wiseman also films 100 hours of raw footage which he then edits down to films of varying lengths. He seems to have no regard for running times as some of his films are six hours in length. Most people would not tolerate sitting for such lengths of time watching films which would also make it difficult for cinema releases. But why is he obsessed with such lengthy running times?
“We’ve called our retrospective series It Takes Time: Ten Films by Frederick Wiseman because we very much believe that he takes his time to see the place, to capture it and then to edit and put the story together. I think he doesn’t want to leave things out that are inherently part of it. ‘When it’s right it’s finished’ is the approach which he takes,” said Neighbour.
The retrospective will screen 10 of Frederick Wiseman’s most iconic documentaries and when asked to name her three must-see selections Jenny Neighbour paused momentarily. It was a difficult choice to make as she is passionate about each film in the program.
Belfast, Maine (1999) – This is a New England port city and Wiseman observes and films ordinary days in ordinary lives. He films the factory work, the council meetings, the church, the lobster fishing, the baker, the laundry – he films the everyday life. “You get this absolutely perfect portrait of a town and the people who live within it, at that time at that place. To be completely engulfed and engaged in a town makes you reflect so much on how communities work.”
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017) – This is a behind the scenes exploration of what is considered to be the most vital institution in New York – the public library. All people from different backgrounds use the library and this documentary shows what people use them for and how. “Wiseman adds this other layer because the library very much shows you the values somehow of the people within it and the values they take away from there.”
City Hall (2020) – Wiseman’s most recent documentary, considered an epic, details the City Hall in Boston and how such an institution works – its everyday handling of stray dogs, community events, policy making and the debates about public housing. “This documentary resonates how it embraces all these conversations.”
This retrospective should be of interest to anybody who is interested in filmmaking, particularly documentary making.
“During COVID-19 lockdown we were all at home reading articles and thinking what this means for our communities,” reflected Neighbour. “I think that’s brought us to a place where we’re all thinking about what being part of society means and makes us reflect on our values and the institutions we have and how they work.”