Civil Liberties

Let the Viewer Decide

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman on free speech, complexity, and the trouble with Michael Moore


It has been 40 years since the premiere of Titicut Follies, a bleak and scathing documentary about an asylum for the criminally insane. The audience at that first screening saw a cascade of disturbing images of mistreatment and neglect, most notoriously a brutal force-feeding of a naked inmate. As the prisoner is fed through the nose, a guard tells him to "chew your food"; the tube itself is lubricated with grease, and a doctor dangles a burning cigarette over the funnel.

But the most grotesque detail may be the follies of the title: an annual musical revue put on by the prisoners and guards. The revue frames the film, which begins with a row of madmen with pompoms singing "Strike Up the Band" and ends with the cast crooning "So Long for Now." It's a strange and darkly comic performance, part Ziegfeld and part Bedlam.

The movie was both a landmark piece of journalism and a landmark work of art. It made the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater one of the most infamous madhouses in the country, and it is now one of the most celebrated documentaries of the '60s. It is also notable for two reasons that have nothing to do with its merits. It was the first picture to be directed by Frederick Wiseman, a former law professor who at age 37 was beginning a long series of rich and challenging films. And it is the only movie in U.S. history to be banned for reasons other than obscenity or national security.

The staff at the asylum cooperated with Wiseman as he shot the picture, and by his account they initially liked the movie. But as audiences' horrified reactions to what they were seeing became clear, the authorities turned against the film, arguing that it violated the privacy of the prisoners and moving to have it legally suppressed. (For a modern parallel, imagine applying the same argument to the photos taken at Abu Ghraib.)

Nudity-averse conservatives denounced the picture as an X-rated exploitation flick. Privacy-conscious liberals refused to defend it. The controversy attracted national attention, which led in turn to more reviews for the movie, many of them glowing. (Time said it "deserves to stand with works like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle as an accusation and a plea for reform.") But in much of the public debate—almost all of it conducted by people who had never seen the film—a documentary that exposed the mistreatment of inmates was itself accused of mistreating the inmates.

On January 4, 1968, Superior Court Judge Harry Kalus ruled for the state, denouncing Titicut Follies as "80 minutes of brutal sordidness and human degradation." Playing critic as well as judge, he also attacked its experimental structure ("a hodge-podge of sequences") and its willingness to let viewers find their own meaning in the material ("There is no narrative accompanying the film, nor are there any subtitles"). He not only ruled that all screenings should cease but called for the movie itself to be destroyed. An appeals court only partially reversed the decision: The picture could still be shown in Massachusetts, it declared, but just to professionals and students in relevant fields. Since Wiseman was a citizen of Massachusetts, he wasn't able to show it freely outside the commonwealth either—and he controlled nearly all the copies of the film. The ban wasn't lifted until 1991.

Meanwhile, Wiseman kept making movies. Many of them, like Titicut Follies, look at life within bureaucracies and other hierarchical institutions: a public school (High School, 1968), an urban hospital (Hospital, 1970), a military training camp (Basic Training, 1971), a monastery (Essene, 1972), a welfare office (Welfare, 1975), a housing project (Public Housing, 1997). Certain topics keep recurring: power, coercion, dehumanization, and the ways we help and victimize both each other and ourselves. Some of his documentaries are remarkably long—Near Death (1989), about the intensive care unit at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital, clocks in at more than six hours—and all are told without narration. They both demand and reward patience.

Wiseman is often described as a social critic. But his films are rarely heavy-handed or one-sided, preferring to revel in the ambiguous, the inexplicable, and the absurd. (When one interviewer asked him to name his biggest influences, Wiseman listed Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Groucho Marx.) His movies usually refrain from forcing a point of view, and they are deliberately open to multiple interpretations. Even Titicut Follies is shaped to show not just the inmates' awful conditions but also, in Wiseman's words, "what the guards had to deal with."

Indeed, many of the characters in Wiseman's films are hard-working professionals with noble motives—though this too can be presented ambiguously. Juvenile Court (1973) ends with a judge, a prosecutor, and a defense attorney deciding to override a teenager's clearly expressed desire to fight the charges against him in court, even though he will be tried as an adult and will risk 20 years in prison. He'll be better off, they agree, if he goes to a reform school; and so his lawyer enters a guilty plea to a lesser charge. They obviously believe sincerely that this is in the defendant's best interest. It may well be in the defendant's best interest. But his right to make that decision for himself is being bulldozed.

Not all of Wiseman's work deals with such nightmarish environments. His subjects have ranged from a dance company (Ballet, 1995) to the Neiman-Marcus department store (The Store, 1983). In 1994 he released a follow-up to High School called High School 2, about an alternative school in East Harlem. His portrait of the place is by no means unambiguously positive, but the film's flavor is distinctly different from that of the movies that made his reputation.

Forty years after Titicut Follies debuted, Wiseman has become one of the grand old men of independent film. His influence extends far beyond the world of documentaries; when Milos Forman directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, for example, the cast and crew prepared by watching Titicut Follies. Critics routinely praise him, and at least three book-length studies of his work have been written; his company, Zipporah Films, is preparing to release his movies on DVD, and last year the University of California published 5 Films by Frederick Wiseman, a collection of transcripts. Now 77, Wiseman still lives in Boston; he is currently editing his 37th picture, about a boxing gym in Texas.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker spoke with Wiseman by phone in late August. Comments can be sent to

Reason: I understand the American Civil Liberties Union was split on whether Titicut Follies should be censored.

Frederick Wiseman: I don't know if they were split. Their decision was to not support me. The then-chairman of the Massachusetts ACLU, Gerald Berlin, had been my first lawyer. When the case heated up and became a daily subject in The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald, there was a cartoon in the Herald that showed Berlin riding astride two horses going in opposite directions. One horse was labeled "ACLU," and the other was labeled "Titicut Follies." The day that cartoon appeared, he told me that he could no longer represent me. Needless to say I was very, very angry, because I felt that he had an obligation to me as his client above his role in the ACLU.

After the initial decision, in which the judge found against the film and said the negatives should be burned, there was an appeal. The Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU, of which Berlin was still the chairman, appointed a committee to determine whether the ACLU should file an amicus brief, and if so what position it would take. None of the members of the committee saw the film.

They wrote a recommendation to the Massachusetts Supreme Court that the film could be allowed to be seen, but only by audiences of professionals consisting of doctors, lawyers, judges, people interested in custodial care, and students in these and related fields. That amicus brief formed the basis of the Massachusetts Supreme Court's decision.

Four or five years later, the executive director of the Massachusetts ACLU asked me whether I would show the film to the board of directors. At that time, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling was in effect: I could show the film on the condition that I give the court and the attorney general's office a week's notice of any screening and then file an affidavit afterwards saying that everybody who saw the film was in the class of people allowed to see it.

So I showed up at the board meeting with a print of the film and a 16mm projector, and I said I was glad to show them the film but they had to prove to me that they were in the class of people allowed to see it. I took two and a half hours to call each of them up individually and ask to see some identification. Each of them had to prove to me they were who they said they were and that their training and background allowed them to see the film. Then I showed them the film, and they all voted to support it.

The obvious point that I was making was that the restriction of the court was a greater infringement of civil liberties than the film was an infringement of the liberties of the inmates.

Reason: Where do you think the boundary should be between privacy rights and free speech?

Wiseman: The right of privacy only exists by statute or by common law tradition. At the time Titicut Follies was released, there was neither a statutory right of privacy nor a common law right of privacy in Massachusetts. For good or bad, the right of privacy didn't exist. It was found to exist for the first time in the Titicut Follies case.

In any number of cases before and after the Titicut Follies case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that when the right of privacy and the public's right to know are in conflict, the public's right to know is the dominant value. Even where the common law or statutory right of privacy exists, it falls before the overriding importance of the First Amendment.

Reason: And that's your opinion as well?

Wiseman: That's my opinion. Maybe 80 percent of the films I've made have been about public, tax-supported institutions. I've always taken the position that what goes on in a public institution should be transparent. And once it grants access to that institution, the state cannot assert a right of privacy.

Reason: I've read different accounts of how Titicut Follies was initially received by the prison authorities, but most of the sources suggest that they liked the portrait of the institution.

Wiseman: They did.

Reason: When did that change?

Wiseman: That changed when the film was accepted to be shown at the New York Film Festival in 1967 and some reviews favorable to the film appeared prior to the opening of the festival. A social worker in Minnesota who had not seen the film wrote a letter to the governor of Massachusetts, John Volpe, saying that he should be ashamed for allowing a film to be made that showed naked men. Volpe then inquired to Elliot Richardson, who was the state attorney general at the time. Richardson in the previous year had been the lieutenant governor and had made the key phone call that allowed me to make the movie. Richardson wanted to be governor or senator, and he thought that his political career was going to be jeopardized when his role in my obtaining permission became public. So he then moved against the film.

Reason: I understand something similar happened with High School—that initially the school was pleased with how the film portrayed them.

Wiseman: That's correct. When I showed it to the superintendent and the teachers, they all liked it. Then the reviews appeared, and the reviews were very critical of the school. The superintendent continued to support the film, but the teachers turned against it.

Reason: The military has let you make several films about it, so I'm guessing they weren't particularly disappointed with what you put together.

Wiseman: I had to agree to show all the military films I made at the Pentagon before they were released publicly, so they could see whether there were any violations of national security. The old shibboleth of national security.

I didn't think I was taking any kind of a risk. When I made Basic Training in 1970, something like 40 million people had gone through basic training since 1939. It was hard to imagine that there was anything to do with national security in the first eight weeks of basic training. I had gone through basic training myself in 1955. There was certainly nothing secret about how to fire an M16.

Reason: When Basic Training was screened here in Baltimore a few months ago, I saw it with an anthropologist who has done fieldwork in a military community. When I asked him what he thought about it, he said he liked it but didn't find it "shocking." I thought that was interesting, that he would feel he was being cued to be shocked. Did you see yourself as making a shocking picture?

Wiseman: No. That's interesting, because one could argue that the thing that's most shocking in Basic Training is the ease with which civilians can be turned into soldiers prepared to kill in the service of the state. It's a form of education, and the Army is very good at offering that form of education. And most people are willing participants.

Reason: Early in your career, you said a central theme of your work is the gap between the stated goals of institutions and their actual performance. Do you think that's still true?

Wiseman: There's a difference between what we do and the way we talk about what we do—between ideology and practice. It's a rather common gap, not just for the subjects of my films but for all of us. For those of us who are less than perfect, in any case.

That's played out in a number of the films. In High School, the dean of discipline is constantly making statements about what's required to "be a man": take punishment, do as you're told, etc. That's a statement of value. It may be presented in comic form in the movie, but it's an abstract statement of the way the dean of discipline thinks people are supposed to behave. And then one can measure both the ways the students behave in relation to that value and the way the dean of discipline behaves in relation to that value.

Reason: A lot of your documentaries, especially the ones about state institutions, deal with the way power manifests itself in our lives. If you watched all those films back to back, are there particular observations about power and liberty that would keep emerging?

Wiseman: I resist that kind of generalization because, one, I'm not very good at it. And two, my experience in making the films is such that I tend to question any general statement.

It's more likely a failure of mine, but I'm not capable of making generalizations about the exercise of power. The great cliché of Lord Acton is as good as any. "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Reason: It's sometimes suggested that your later films tend to be less harsh than your earlier films. Do you think there's any truth to that?

Wiseman: It depends on what's meant by "harsh." I understand what you're referring to, but I think whether the films are "harsh" is in part related to the subject matter. Titicut Follies is a harsh film because the situations were harsh. Ballet is not a harsh film. Dance is a very complicated art form, and the film tries to show how people both learn and perform it.

I suppose my interests have changed to some extent, and my experience is different as a result of getting older and being in a lot of these different places, but generally speaking I don't think I'm that different a person than I was in 1967.

The final film is a reflection of what I find. I think it's just as important to show people doing a good job as it is to show them doing a lousy job.

Reason: There's a recent trend toward documentaries in which the filmmaker makes himself a part of the action. Obviously that's very different from your style. Sicko and Hospital are both about American health care, but their approaches are just poles apart.

Wiseman: Well, I haven't seen Sicko, but generally speaking I'm not a fan of Michael Moore's.

Reason: How come?

Wiseman: I think he's an entertainer. I don't think he's interested in complexity.

I'm not against the filmmaker appearing in a film. I think some of the greatest documentaries I've ever seen have been made by a filmmaker who's present in the film. I don't know if you've seen any movies by Marcel Ophuls—The Sorrow and the Pity or Hotel Terminus. Ophuls is a great filmmaker because he's a great interviewer and he has a very sharp and analytical mind. In the case of Michael Moore, I don't see any particular filmmaking skills, and I think his point of view is extremely simplistic and self-serving.

One of my goals is always to deal with the ambiguity and complexity that I find in any subject. Even the simplest human act can be subject to multiple interpretations or have multiple causes. In Titicut Follies, for example, there are scenes where you see a guard or a doctor or a social worker being cruel to an inmate. But there are other situations where they're being kind. Some of them are both kind and cruel, if not simultaneously then serially.

Reason: You've said Titicut Follies is more didactic than your later films. Are there sequences you wish you had done differently?

Wiseman: Yeah. The best example is the forced feeding. I show too heavy an editorial hand in that sequence. Instead of intercutting it with the guy being made up for his funeral, it would have been better if I'd shown the forced feeding as a separate sequence, and then had some intervening sequences, and then shown him being made up for his burial later and cutting it in such a way that you recognize that it's the same person.

I think the way I did it forces the issue of whether the guy is treated better in death than in life. Whereas if I did it the way I just described, the viewer could have come to that conclusion instead of having it forced on him.

Reason: When the judge ruled to suppress Titicut Follies, its openness was one of the things he held against it. "Each viewer," he complained, "is left to his own devices as to just what is being portrayed and in what context."

Wiseman: I think that's a good description of the technique I've used all along. When the technique works, it works because the viewer is brought into the situation, feels in some way present, and has to make up his own mind about the significance of what he's seeing. That's what I tried to do in the Follies, and that's what I tried to refine as time went on.

I have a horror of novels that are so didactic that you know the reason why everybody is doing what they're doing. And I think there's no reason a film can't be as complex as a novel.