Frederick Wiseman is still captivating his audience with his long observations of institutions and the people within them

Hariette Yahr
Harriette Yahr is a filmmaker and writer. She also founded Miami Film Workshops. Her short films have won numerous awards and have screened at festivals worldwide, including Telluride.

wisemanHis latest film “State Legislature” premiered earlier this year. DOX met him in June.

It was back in my first year of college, in my first filmmaking class, when I learned about Frederick Wiseman. I was lucky to have a professor who introduced me to the passion of independent filmmaking – and to the masters of US documentary, i.e. Wiseman, Ricky Leacock, the Maysles brothers. This DOX assignment was one of those interesting experiences in life that mark the passing of time.

In preparation for this interview, I looked back at Wiseman’s work, which gave me another take on the passing of time. From “High School” (1968) to “High School 2” (1994) from “Blind”(1986) to “State Legislature” (2007), this filmmaker’s work is as resonant now as it ever was. How many experiences in our lives give us that same consistency? And how many filmmakers continue to produce work so consistently?

Wiseman’s debut film, “Tititcut Follies” (1967), revealed the inner workings of an institution for the criminally insane and, in turn, revealed the inner workings of us as a society – our faults, our fears, our capacity to abuse and to forget. Wiseman’s films function as art in the true sense of the word. Whether shining the light on institutions or the people in them, his films compel us to question, understand and make sense of ourselves.

Wiseman has made 32 films which he produces, directs, and fastidiously edits. “State Legislature”, his new doc, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February. I like this film not only for the lessons about one of the three branches of US government (the executive and judiciary being the others), but for how it offers up the rote, even boring, day-to-day goings-on of democracy. Here, celebrity is rooted out of the political mix. This is civil service. It’s not sex, it’s mundane, even amidst the power plays. For a US populace obsessed with stardom, in a country where glamour and politics have become entrenched, I wish it would be required viewing everywhere.

Clocking in at over three hours, “State Legislature” feels long, if you fight it. Yet like all of Wiseman’s work, if you settle in, time disappears. It’s a magical world Wiseman creates – still, at age 76 – like the soul of whatever matter he’s investigating. It’s born of being – to borrow from film history parlance – a true fly on the wall. And about “observational” cinema, read on for an interesting film history note, one that throws a ratchet into the information I was given years ago in my first filmmaking class.

Harriette Yahr: “I just finished watching” State Legislature. “You haven’t lost your edge. What keeps you interested in filmmaking?”

Frederick Wiseman: Filmmaking is fun, intellectually demanding, a sport and keeps me off the street.

“Off the street, that’s funny. What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t making films?”

Trying to write novels.

“I’m so curious about your thoughts about current technology. Cameras are a dime a dozen, access is no longer an issue. What impact do you think this has on documentary filmmaking?”

I do not have many thoughts about current technologies. I like to work on film and will continue to do so as long as possible.

“Why film?”

Film looks better.

“What draws you to the subjects you explore?”

Curiosity.

“Do you see documentary film as tool for social or political change?”

No.

“Has your view changed over the years?”

Yes, I am less naïve.

“How so?”

I do not think it is possible to assess the impact of a film. People in a democracy have many sources of information – movies, books, magazines, newspapers, the Internet, radio, etcetera. I know of no example of a single work producing political change.

“How has the way you work, your process, changed over the years?”

The technique is the same but I like to think I have learned something over the years.

“Like what, for example?”

What I have learned is visible in the films.

“Digital editing must have made an impact”.

Not on me.

“How do you separate yourself emotionally from tough subjects you are shooting, or do you?

I had to turn away from Domestic Violence “several times”.I am at the place which is the subject of the film to make a movie. Work is a partial defense against some of the emotional demands made. I am also quite clear in my mind that I am present to make a movie and not to tell others what they should or should not do.

“I’ve heard you say that you don’t make observational cinema, or direct cinema, yet film-history books teach us otherwise. I’m confused, can you help me understand?”

I am not responsible for the categories created by film historians.

“How, then, would you like people to view your work?”

As movies.

“Do you think the presence of the camera affects people’s behavior?”

In my experience, no. I cannot generalize or speak for others. If people do not want their picture taken, they say ‘no’, or walk away. Most people are not good enough actors to change their behavior when their picture is taken. If most people could act so easily, then the pool from which actors for the theater and the movies are drawn would be much larger than it is.

“Which is your favorite film of yours?”

I do not choose among my children.

“Which film would you say changed you the most?”

Duck Soup.

“What gave you the filmmaking bug?”

I was always interested, just late doing something about it.

“How do you feel when you hear yourself called the father, even grandfather, of documentary film?”

Old.

“Do you have any advice for filmmakers just starting out?”

No.

“Is there anything funny about the world to you?”

Watch my films.

State Legislature

USA 2007, 217 min.

The Idaho State Senate and House of Representatives meet three months a year to discuss and vote on various bills submitted to them. In “State Legislature” Wiseman observes a wide variety of the interactions that occur during these three months: the debates, the corridor lobbying, the small and big questions they have to take a stand and vote on. And everything is discussed in detail from every possible angle. This is a portrait of democracy at its best, painting a picture of engaged, responsible individuals who take each issue seriously, arguing and trying to find the best possible solution to issues. Interesting insight into the workings of lawmaking, judicial terms mixed with common sense. It confirms that democracy seems to work at least at local levels where legislators are close to their constituencies.

 


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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