Frederick Wiseman Discusses Documentary Filmmaking

Story posted May 27, 2005

Frederick Wiseman
Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, speaking at Kresge Auditorium Friday.

Legendary documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman spoke at Kresge Auditorium Friday, as part of the 200th Commencement Weekend program.

Wiseman, who has won three Emmy awards for his pioneering work in cinéma vérité, was on campus to receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.

With candor and dry wit, Wiseman racounted his transformation from disgruntled law professor to filmmaker, beginning with his groundbreaking 1967 film Titicut Follies. That film chronicled life inside Bridgewater Hospital, a facility for the criminally insane, and brought Wiseman widespread acclaim for its spare, clear-eyed force.

“I try to let the subject matter speak for itself,” he said, describing the filming approach and year-long editing process involved in the making of Titicut Follies. It is a model Wiseman has replicated almost yearly in over 30 documentaries.

The film was shot over the period of a month by a three-person crew using a handheld camera – then a new technology. Wiseman said he then spent a year in the editing room studying 75 hours worth of footage and “trying to find the film.”

“I find a film by studying the rushes (the unedited sequences),” he said, “then organize them into a structure that has some kind of narrative push. The film is a report on what I found as a result of a year of intensive study, rather than a preconceived idea of it. I do this to be surprised.”

Following his first film, Wiseman said he decided to do a series of films chronicling institutions – including a welfare office, high school, domestic abuse center, racetrack, science lab, and small town – Belfast, Maine. “I thought of this as a way of exploring American life,” he said.

In an unusual and lively twist on question-and-answer sessions, Wiseman asked audience members to answer his questions about an excerpt of his 1975 film Welfare, which he screened as part of his talk.

“What was the very first shot?” he asked. “Why did I use that? What did you infer from the placement of shots?” As audience members responded, it became evident how widely a film can be interpreted and how richly suggestive the placement of shots can be.

“What I’ve been trying to do is recreate for you the kinds of thoughts I have to have to boil down a sequence to be useful,” he told the rapt audience. “In order to make the film I have to know why I’m using every shot.”

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