Advice for filmmakers: Frederick Wiseman on controversy and inspiration

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Screen shot from the documentary Titicut Follies. Zipporah Films/1967

Filmmakers need to remain open to influence from more media than just movies, advised veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman during a screening of his 1967 film, Titicut Follies, an event co-presented by Portland State and student-run 5th Avenue Cinema.

The 85-year-old filmmaker and winner of numerous career-lauding awards and fellowships spoke to moviegoers on April 21 at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. Wiseman elaborated on his process of creating controversial work and offered candid advice for up-and-coming filmmakers.

“The story is created in the editing,” Wiseman said. “In the case of the Follies, I had about 80 or 90 hours of film, and the final piece is only 82 minutes. It took a year to do the edit, as it does with all my films. I just collect a lot of rushes, and I find the story in the editing.”

Titicut Follies is a disturbing documentary recording the daily lives and treatment of patient-inmates at the Massachusetts’ Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane. Wiseman and his crew shot for 29 days inside the facility in 1966, capturing alarming images of inhumane conditions, taunting guards, chain-smoking doctors and the bizarre namesake of the film, the inmate–guard performance of a song-and-dance variety show called Titicut Follies.

When asked how he dealt with the unsettling treatment he witnessed during filming, Wiseman cited the necessity of film’s capturing reality in its truest, rawest form. He described his approach as devoid of research, entering a scene to capture it and showing as much as possible.

“I was completely absorbed in the filmmaking,” Wiseman said. “I mean, it was horrible to see people being treated in those conditions, but I was there to make a film and that occupied all my time.”

Regarding the film’s positioning as a historical document or means of societal change, Wiseman described his role as documentarian as taking priority over all.

“I hope it works as a film,” Wiseman said. “I mean, historical document is one aspect of it, but either it works as a film or it doesn’t. It’s a dramatic-narrative movie[, and its] structure is maintained and still viable after all these years.”

Titicut Follies was originally banned by the government of Massachusetts for alleged violations of inmate privacy, as much of the footage displays men naked, force-fed and harassed by the facility’s guards. Titicut was first allowed to be shown for educational purposes only, earning the title of the first American film banned from general release to the public for reasons other than obscenity.

Fortunately for purist fans of 35 mm filmmaking, Titicut was preserved by the Library of Congress and its ban lifted in 1991 after repeated appeals by the Superior Court.

Wiseman spoke of his sense of obligation as a filmmaker to those who allow him to shoot in controversial locations. He offered insights into his own sources of filmmaking inspiration.

“Young filmmakers should read novels and poems, and they shouldn’t go to the movies so much,” Wiseman said. “I’ve been more influenced with other forms of media than movies. I’ve been influenced by things that I’ve read. I like all the great 19th-century writers: Melville, James, Hawthorne, Poe. They should see how other people in other forms work.”

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