Film Series / Events

Search All Film Series (1999-present)
Browse All Film Series

October 1 - December 3, 2011

Frederick Wiseman, Institution U.S.A.

It was first as a teacher of criminal law that Frederick Wiseman (b. 1930) ventured down the shadowy corridors of the institutions he would later conscientiously illuminate on film. His inaugural foray into documentary cinema, the seminal Titicut Follies (1967), proved so shocking in its unadorned rendering of a state mental institution that it remains the only American film to have been completely censored for reasons other than obscenity or national security. Yet the controversy in no way deterred Wiseman from continuing to maneuver through similar halls and uncovering the unruly humanity and institutional psyche within them.

From court, hospital, school, public housing development and military base, to monastery, meat-processing plant and even the entire town of Belfast, Maine, most of his thirty-eight films comprise a dramatic social chronicle of the American Institution – in all of its variously rigid and amorphous manifestations. Whether revealing corners of society hidden from view or enlarging the perspective on those too familiar to be seen, Wiseman's panoramic views of social microcosms offer both vital records of American lives and ideologies and artful expositions of the human condition.

In line with the "direct" and "observational" movements in documentary filmmaking, Wiseman invented his own technique of what he half-jokingly calls "reality fiction" – acknowledging his subjective, yet remarkably evenhanded act of interpreting reality. Exceptional even among his like-minded contemporaries, Wiseman keeps dramatic manipulations, filmmaker intervention and judgment to an absolute minimum and includes no narration, music, explanatory intertitles, or interviews. Recording sound while long-time collaborator John Davey (and before him, William Brayne) shoots 16mm film, Wiseman then spends a long, intensive and monastic period editing the footage – abandoning standard narrative structure in favor of a more intuitive, dynamic placement around the accurate portrayal of his central protagonist: the place.

Time seems to unfold naturally, patiently immersing the viewer into the middle of the drama on the same footing as those filmed. Lengthy scenes expand into a comprehensive yet undefined view where multiple, minute revelations can erupt within the most mundane of situations. Apparently guided by a moral obligation to both his subjects and his viewers, Wiseman refuses exploitive manipulation and voyeuristic titillation. Instead, all are respectfully invited to navigate humanity's complex web on their own. Steering clear of the sensational, saccharine, and patronizing tone of "expert" commentaries, the audience is activated into paying attention to the nuance and details where the critical questions, arguments, laughter, anxiety, silence, discomfort and heartache reside.

Wiseman's cinema is a consummate and caring witness to the full spectrum of human heroics and follies – from the inarticulate to the eloquent, the convoluted to the beautiful, dark to light, the ordinary to the extraordinary. Drawn to the well-worn stage of everyday life, in recent years Wiseman has been inspired by his love of theatre and ballet performances, particularly those in Paris, where The Last Letter, his single fictional excursion takes place. There, as in all of his work, Wiseman gently wrings the heart of the most unassuming situations in order to exhibit the myriad constellations of beliefs, laws and lifestyles that together comprise the soul of a nation. – Brittany Gravely

Co-sponsored by the Film Study Center, Harvard University

Frederick Wiseman will also deliver the 2011 Phelps Lecture entitled "Shooting, Editing, and Reading a Documentary Film" at the Radcliffe Institute Gymnasium on December 1 at 4pm.


Saturday October 1 at 7pm

Basic Training

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1971, 16mm, b/w, 89 min

The cinematic drama of infantry training – particularly in the age of Vietnam and the draft – has been an easy target for both Hollywood and the news media. Many shots in Basic Training seem so familiar to Americans by now – iconic scenes of army initiation and discipline, the graphic composition and repetition of military configurations – that even minor disturbances in the flow are noticed by audience and commanding officer alike. Amid darkly comic and unexpectedly awkward moments, the well-oiled military apparatus processes the few trainees who do not fit in, while breaking down and converting the rest into compliant soldiers. Subtly echoing the disconcerting final scene of High School, Basic Training is itself a succinct, masterful course in institutional indoctrination.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Saturday October 1 at 9pm

High School

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1968, 16mm, b/w, 75 min

From the chaos and controversy of Titicut Follies, Wiseman moved on to the comparatively placid hallways of public high school for his second film. Resuming the more overtly critical commentary of his early work, Wiseman weaves together fragmented sequences, visual puns, unsympathetic close-ups, and witty cuts to produce an ultimately scathing evaluation of North East High School in Philadelphia, considered one of the top schools in the city at the time. Droning an incessant message of control, repression and conformity to a generally listless student body, teachers and administrators prowl the hallways, ridicule independent thought, dictate, manipulate, confuse and simply bore the teenagers into submitting to a generic existence. By the film's end, the familiar institutional languor and disciplinary monotone of public schools offers a shockingly smug confirmation of its own moribund purpose.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday October 2 at 7pm

Domestic Violence

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 2001, 16mm, color, 196 min

The institutional subject here is the refuge The Spring in Tampa, Florida – the largest domestic violence shelter of its kind in the US. Cameras follow police responding to calls, helpline operators reaching out to panicked victims and devastating counseling sessions with women checking in, most often only after years of abuse. During group therapy sessions and classroom workshops, the wounded, nihilistic women exchange stories and learn to think for themselves again. Their emotional blossoming – sometimes apparent as soon as their initial entrance – is a privilege to witness, even as the shock and horror of their accounts accumulate and spill over into frank conversations with their perceptive children. Guiding residents through the law, economic survival and psychology, The Spring's monumental undertaking to alter a tortuously ingrained cycle of abuse renders the smallest breakthroughs enormous.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Saturday October 15 at 7pm

Essene

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1972, 16mm, b/w, 86 min

Wiseman's tempered contemplation of micro-cultures is fully realized in this detailed observance of the communal life of a Benedictine monastery. Still early in his career, he begins allowing the human drama to play out in longer takes – immersing the audience into the monks' private, unguarded moments of prayer, healing, discussion and group therapy. The viewer is given a sacred permission slip into a relatively liberal, spiritual society bound by obscure rules. Compared to the public institutions in the Wiseman oeuvre, the conflicts that arise here feel quieter, more intellectual and granted the luxury of time and space for thorough examination.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Saturday October 15 at 9pm

Meat

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1976, 16mm, b/w, 113 min

In graphic black and white, Wiseman dissects the meat industry into its various parts: the corralling, feeding and killing of the cattle and sheep, the processing of meat, and the final sale of the end products. Even in the grisly, bizarre theater of the slaughterhouse, the business of animal "fabrication" appears startlingly detached and efficient. Teams of wranglers, technicians, administrators, computers and powerful machinery work to fully dismantle these hefty beasts who – like the institutions examined in Wiseman's films – only seem larger and more complex as they are taken apart. Even in the age of food industry exposés, Meat remains a revelatory exception, forgoing judgment for open-ended elucidation.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday October 16 at 7pm

Welfare

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1975, 16mm, b/w, 167 min

The desperate melting pot of New York's Waverly Welfare Center simmers and boils over as workers and applicants attempt to decipher the riddles of convoluted bureaucracy and extricate the truth from masses of tangled, tragic tales. The frustration is palpable on both sides of the counter as socio-psychological complexities are forced into numbers, paperwork and regulations. Amid the demoralizing process of earning eligibility by proof of destitution, racial and class tensions ferment, neuroses flourish, and exasperating Kafkaesque scenarios give way to poetic monologues railing against Catch 22 absurdity. Every so often, the camera returns to the familiar and new faces eternally cycling through the torpid purgatory of the Welfare waiting room.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Monday October 17 at 7pm

Law and Order

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1969, 16mm, b/w, 81 min

A series of vignettes focused on the day-to-day work of Kansas City, Missouri police covers the range of circumstances they encounter and the variety of social roles they are asked to play. More than simply chasing down criminals, the police appear to act as counselors, negotiators and arbitrators of civil injustices, minor altercations and petty crimes. Filmed at the height of an anti-authoritarian age, the policemen shown are more frequently reasonable, patient and fair than sadistic, inhumane or incompetent. When a policeman does step out of line, the fact that he knows he is being filmed is as revealing as the unguarded asides or unnecessary violence captured by the camera.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Saturday October 29 at 7pm

Public Housing

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1997, 16mm, color, 195 min

Dense social histories, desperate entanglements and thwarted dreams course through every interaction – from a drug counseling session to an exterminator visit – at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago. Even the 24-hour circling ice cream truck and its unrelenting refrain epitomize the strange combination of an old-fashioned, if dysfunctional, familial camaraderie within an oppressive architecture of surveillance, vigilance and continual police presence. Surrounded by poverty, addiction, abuse, crime and unemployment, the advocates for change fight an uphill battle or at times, a backwards one – as suggested by a condom demonstration to a room of teenage mothers and their crying babies – yet their gallant efforts toward inspiration and empowerment are unflagging. From police confrontation to sewing circle, it is the unending compassion and grace that astonishes perhaps more than the chronic frustration and hopelessness.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday October 30 at 7pm

Deaf

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1986, 16mm, color, 164 min

"Many times people that hear can't communicate," warns one of the counselors at the Alabama Institute's School for the Deaf. Here the students are taught manifold forms of alternate communication often requiring quite dexterous levels of observation, as mirrored in Wiseman's steadfast, patient filmmaking. Putting his audience to work alongside the committed students, Wiseman allows the beauty and mystery of gestures to take over – occasionally, signing carries on "untranslated" – while viewers' senses adjust to a frequently otherworldly realm where busy hallways may be silent, yet much of the classroom routines, drama and mischief remain. Punctuated by an excruciatingly awkward scene of a troubled child in conference with his mother, a counselor and the principal, Deaf describes the particular layers of emotional and physical challenges for these students and staff as it outlines the delicate, multi-faceted signals all humans continually transmit.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Monday October 31 at 7pm

Blind

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1986, 16mm, color, 132 min

Part of a series of documentaries Wiseman made at an Alabama school and training facility for handicapped people, Blind follows students in kindergarten through high school as they learn techniques to navigate physically and psychologically in a visual-centric world. As the camera guides the viewer through the textures of their spaces, it lingers on close-ups of fingers translating Braille and hands guiding hands, easing the viewer into discovering the intimacy of this culture within a culture (the deep South) within an institution in the 1980s. The students' persistent determination to find their way – mixed with varying degrees of anguish, humor and sweetness – yields a film as much about blindness as it is about the darkness faced in childhood and adolescence.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday November 20 at 6pm

Belfast, Maine

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1999, 16mm, color, 248 min

Describing the "great, democratic vision" of Moby Dick as an epic "picture of working class life in America," the high school English teacher also describes the sweeping scope of Frederick Wiseman's work to date. Serenely composed of the illuminating routines and intimate minutiae of various cultures and institutions within the coastal New England town, the distinctly reflexive film evokes several of his previous films while recalling the placement of itself within his growing mosaic. Numerous scenes of social service intakes point to his catalogue's nuts-and-bolts sociological aspect as they retrace familiar themes: the individual dependent on greater systems and the human wilderness lurking beneath the statistics. Meanwhile, the quaint particulars of Maine's hunting, logging, and fishing cultures surface both within and apart from more ubiquitous American spaces of home, factory, church, office, classroom, courtroom, and laundromat. The residents' persistence, patience and faith is on par with Wiseman and his ongoing, extraordinary chronicle – one in which the tragic hero may simply be "a commercial fisherman from Nantucket."

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Monday November 21 at 7pm

Titicut Follies

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 1967, 16mm, b/w, 84 min

Still his most infamous work, Wiseman's first film was banned until 1989 from being screened except under extremely limited educational conditions. Capturing the cruel environment of the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, this film – shot by ethnographic filmmaker John Marshall – may also be Wiseman's most expressionistic and surreal. Evoking the grotesque beauty and existential comedy of the Theatre of the Absurd, the shock is that these are the inimitable follies of real people in a real place. Here, the cartoonishly inept psychiatrist makes less sense than his schizophrenic patient, and at times, the good-natured guard appears more like an inmate than his captive audience. On this stark stage, humanity seems stripped down to its brutal, illogical, and extraordinary edges.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Special Event Tickets $12
Friday December 2 at 7pm

The Last Letter (La Dernière Lettre)

Directed by Frederick Wiseman, Appearing in Person
US/France 2002, 35mm, b/w, 62 min

In his first cinematic departure from both the documentary and the English language, Wiseman paints a black-and-white Expressionistic vision of a solitary character played by actress Catherine Samie. Based on a chapter of Vasily Grossman's novel Life and Fate, the lyrical monologue is a letter from a doomed Jewish doctor to her son wherein she describes her Ukrainian village's fall to the Nazis in 1941. Her deeply, precisely articulated gestures and voice play a mesmerizing dance with Wiseman's spare, masterful use of the language of cinema. Like his documentary work, the drama feels palpably intimate yet permanently engraved upon the stage of the world. Illustrating one woman's capacity for profound tenderness and dignity in the face of extinction, The Last Letter is an eloquent elegy that is ultimately a call to life.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Saturday December 3 at 7pm

State Legislature

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
US 2006, 16mm, color, 217 min

Meticulously scrutinizing the chambers of the state capitol in Boise, Wiseman observes the transparent mechanisms within Idaho's congress of citizens who legislate part of the year and return to the citizenry for the remainder. Perhaps this accounts for their earnest and patient deliberation of the wide range of bills before them, including cattle tagging, tissue donation after death, electoral waste, mandatory kindergarten, "video voyeurism" and gay marriage. Marked by an oddly compelling absence of scandal or ineptitude, the extended, detailed scenes expose the passion of lobbyists, congress members and concerned citizens to reveal a calm, conscientious civility and sense that every individual's voice does appear to be articulated and heard.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top
Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700