Frederick Wiseman Goes to Idaho


On paper, it sounds beyond wonky: a fly-on-the-wall documentary, nearly four hours in length, concerned with the day-to-day operation of the Idaho legislature. No voice-over, no title cards, no interviews, no music, maps, or graphics—just scene upon scene of uninflected handheld eavesdropping on such riveting topics as rising utility costs, secondhand smoke, and first-year teacher salaries.

On screen, State Legislature is . . . well, pretty darn wonky. But it’s also a film by Frederick Wiseman, legendary documentarian and unsurpassed master of the institutional portrait, whose 40-year contemplation of American civilization has illuminated the landscapes of High School (1968), Welfare (1975), and Public Housing (1997), among much else. And so State Legislature is an impeccably constructed illustration in depth, ceaselessly alert and cumulatively profound. Given the subject, spells of monotony are to be expected; vital as they are, the mechanics of workaday democracy lack the obvious dramatic voltage of, say, Domestic Violence (2001). Given the particular tenacious genius of Wiseman, however, even the most listless passages here (water policy, zzzz . . . ) produce unexpected sparks.

State Legislature opens with nuanced deliberations over the ethical and legislative implications of “video voyeurism” in response to an apparent crisis of cell-phone camera “upskirting” in Idaho department stores. However compelling (or amusing, or infuriating) the surface discourse, Wiseman’s unbiased method engages the attention on a deeper, structural level. Uniquely governed by “citizen legislators,” Idaho culls its representatives from the general populace—white-collar and blue—who convene for three-month annual sessions. As such, State Legislature functions as a compendium of regular-Joe rhetorical styles, largely unburdened by the posturing of career politicians. Suave or stuttering, conversational or rehearsed, anecdotal or historical, righteous or relaxed, there’s a disarming, appealing modesty to these (predominately male, exclusively white, common-sense conservative) voices.

Opening for its theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives, State Legislature suits the procedure-dweeb mood of the season, with its obsessive attention to electoral minutiae and the profusion of elaborate systemic narratives. “The grandeur in the behavior of the Idaho legislators,” Wiseman comments in his director’s notes, “and by implication any democratically elected legislators, is in their acceptance of the need to try and resolve the ordinary and mundane issues of human existence in a way that allows for differences of opinion to be resolved by a process, the legislative process, where the commitment to the process is more important than the resolution of a specific issue.” A wondrous sentiment, wondrous to behold in optimistic, all-American action. Enlightened due process—how refreshing!