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There seems hardly a social institution left in the United States that hasn't come under Frederick Wiseman's steady, steely gaze over more than 30 years of documentary filmmaking, as a scan of his fittingly monolithic titles indicates: Hospital(1969), Juvenile Court(1973), Welfare(1975), Public Housing(1997). His ever evolving subject is nothing less than the American social contract, and how the machinery of the state upholds or shreds it. His first film, Titicut Follies(1967), a hellish descent into a Bridgewater insane asylum, was suppressed by Massachusetts authorities for a quarter-century; his second effort, High School(1968), a pithy chronicle of a Philadelphia facility where teachers routinely humiliate their students, was effectively banned within a 50-mile radius of the city.
With his latest, Domestic Violence(opening today at Film Forum; see J. Hoberman's review), Wiseman pulls the curtain on another dreadfully common open secret of American life. As harrowing as the film can be, however, Wiseman's chosen milieu this time around provides a heartening example of where social-aid organizations can go right. Much of the film was shot at Florida's largest domestic violence shelter, The Spring of Tampa Bay, where victims benefit from a wide spectrum of services: individual and group therapy, legal counsel, housing assistance, and for their children, an on-site public schoolthe first of its kind in the nation. Here it's not the system that needs drastic recalibration but the chaotic lives and thinking patterns of the residents seeking help. After years of abuse and degradation, the women's minds have been damaged far more grievously than their bodies.
"Domestic violence is a confluence of so many fantastically complicated issues: emotional, financial, familial, psychological," says Wiseman from his editing room in Paris, where he is completing his second fiction feature (based on a chapter of the novel Life and Fateby the Russian writer Vasily Grossman). "In order to break out of a pattern they've been held in for so long, these women are forced to rethink so many different aspects of their lives."
Wiseman shot his 32nd film over two months in the spring of 1998, spending weekdays at The Spring and weekends with policemen responding to domestic violence calls. He then whittled 110 hours of footage down to 196 minutes (and plans a second three-hour installment to focus on accused batterers in court). Before getting started, though, Wiseman had to secure the permission from The Spring's staff and clients to train his camera on intimate and painful dilemmas.
Claudette Reese, an adult-case manager at The Spring, says when she first heard about plans for a documentary, "I thought, Well, there goes our privacy. I didn't think the women would have the space they needed to cry and talk about personal issues. But most of my clients were fine with it, and a lot of times they didn't even know he was in the room. Sometimes we'd still be talking and suddenly realize he had already gone."
"When they'd close in on you with the lens just about on your ear, you might get a little stressed out, but other than that, it seemed to dissipate," says Henry Hower, The Spring's on-site attorney, of Wiseman's three-person crew.
Wiseman's incredible shrinking camera is integral to his patented style: no voice-over, no interviews, no identification of subjects, no intentional acknowledgment of the camera. His aim, he says, is "to record an experience as it took place, without any kind of intervention or mediation. I like the idea of accumulating a lot of material without knowing what the themes are going to be, and then have the final film be, in a sense, a report of what I've learned, which emerges over the long process of editing."
"The method he uses is part of the reason why we get such a raw, comprehensive overview of what a victim of domestic violence goes through, on an emotional level and just in terms of the logistics of her life," says Megan Faux, who until last August represented victims of domestic violence in family and immigration court in Brooklyn and now teaches personal-safety classes.
Spring staffers praise Wiseman's effort as an enduring awareness tool, and it's surely destined for a healthy lifespan on PBS. Since Hower and Yesenia Carrillo, assistant director at Nazareth Housing, independently compare the film to Cops, it may also enhance
Wiseman's incipient reputation as the granddaddy of reality TV. Like much latter-day Wiseman, Domestic Violence is also exhaustive and often stubbornly quotidianthe film doesn't stint on staff meetings. "I try very hard to make a film that is fair to the experience I had in being with the participants," the director says.
According to Faux, Domestic Violence is "maybe unedited in excess": "My frustration is that it gives such a great summary of what we're dealing with, and very few people are going to see it because it's more than three hours long. It's a shame, because what he does best is show how complex the issue and the individuals are. He doesn't put domestic violence victims in a box and say, This is what they have to be like in order to be a victim. It's such a useful lesson to put out there, because it's really frustrating when you're in court and the judge doesn't see your client as a victim because of the way she acts or the way she looks."