Our secular pope of give-them-enough-rope docs, Frederick Wiseman, has been observing the American drama for 33 years now, and the current retro at the Walter Reade is a picture window on society’s inner workings. (His new Belfast, Maine is also being shown on PBS Friday night.) But how neutral is this most famously invisible of documentarians?
Your films are almost always viewed in terms of their social statements, rarely in terms of your formal ideas and strategies.
Tell me what you mean by strategies.
The impartial camera, the avoidance of narration and interviews, the seemingly unstructured editing; it all seems like a suggestion of, a toying with, objectivity. It’s the old purist-documentary question: How “true” is it?
It’s not objective at all. “Objectivity” is not a word I would use. My films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed, subjective—but fair. I say “fair” not as a substitute, but as an alternative, to “objective.” I mean, it’s fair to my experience, of being in a place for a period of time, and then studying the material during the editing. But certainly not objective. It would be extremely pretentious of me to use that term in relation to what I do. Everything I do represents a choice, of subject matter, of how something’s shot, the duration of a sequence, et cetera. It’s a strategy I used from the beginning; I never liked narration, so I never used it. I don’t like to do interviews. The idea is, when this technique works, it works because it puts the viewers in the middle of events and asks them to think through their own relationship with what they’re seeing and hearing.
But the films still seem to try to impart an unsullied reality compared to other documentaries of the last 20 years, many of which have been overtly personal and very obvious about their makers’ position.
I would definitely agree that my films represent my position on things—I’m an active participant, just not a very obvious participant.
There are a lot of moments in Belfast, Maine—like the scene where a nurse is extracting nits from a young mother’s hair—where I can’t help but wonder how your presence with a camera affects the action. It’s as if you’re trying to stay out of it, but it’s impossible.
I’m not trying to stay out of the material. I’m presenting it in a certain way, choosing it, shooting it, and editing it a certain way. What I am trying to do is present it not in a simpleminded way—which represents a choice as well. I’m trying to reflect the complexity of the original event. That scene, there’s a lot going on there: There’s the visiting nurse, the fact that the city makes her services available, your assessment of the intelligence and character of the mother, the whole suggestion of her family dynamic, her preadolescent daughter who’s developing too quickly, et cetera.
You don’t think your presence in the room colors our information about those issues?
I don’t. This is a basic discussion—whether or not the Heisenberg principle applies to documentary filmmaking. You have to make an assessment as to whether you’re being conned. If I think somebody is putting on for the camera, I stop shooting, or I don’t use it in the editing room. Moreover, I don’t think people have the capacity to change their behavior and become suddenly different. If they don’t want their picture taken, they say no or walk away or thumb their nose. But if they agree, they’ll act in a way that’s appropriate to the situation. Which is exactly what you want.
In this sense, what’s your view on Titicut Follies now, 30 years later? Did those inmates have that choice?
Sure they did, because I asked them. If a prisoner wasn’t capable of giving consent, and most of them were by the legal definition of competency, the guard that was accompanying me was acting as an agent for the superintendent. But Bridgewater was a public institution, and what goes on in a publicly funded institution is supposed to be available to us and protected by the First Amendment. Which goes beyond my parochial interests as a filmmaker and becomes the question of what kind of information is available to citizens in a democratic society. And the right of privacy, even when it exists (and it didn’t exist in Massachusetts at the time the movie was made, although I’d never rely on that argument)—the argument I made pertained to the First Amendment. The state objected to the film, and banned it, but the state was also responsible for the state that the prisoners were in. The fact is, no inmate or family of an inmate ever complained about the film.