Wiseman, Frederick

views updated May 23 2018

WISEMAN, Frederick

Nationality: American. Born: Boston, 1 January 1930. Education: Williams College, B.A., 1951; Yale Law School, L.L.B., 1954; Harvard University. Family: Married Zipporah Batshaw, 29 May 1955, two sons. Military Service: Served in U.S. Army, 1954–56. Career: Practiced law in Paris, and began experimental filmmaking, 1956–58; taught at Boston University Law School, 1958–61; bought rights to The Cool World by Warren Miller, and produced documentary version directed by Shirley Clarke; directed first film, Titicut Follies, 1966; received foundation grant to do High School, 1967; directed three films funded in part by PBS and WNET Channel 13 in New York, 1968–71; contracted to make documentaries for WNET, 1971–81; continued to make films for PBS, through 1980s; also theatre director, late 1980s. Awards: Emmy Award, Best Documentary Direction, for Hospital, 1970; Peabody Award; Career Achievement Award, International Documentary Association. Address: Zipporah Films, Inc., 1 Richdale Avenue, Suite 4, Cambridge, MA 02140, U.S.A.

Films as Director, Producer, and Editor:


Titicut Follies


High School


Law and Order




Basic Training




Juvenile Court




Welfare; Meat


Canal Zone


Sinai Field Mission






Seraphita's Diary (+ sc)


The Store




Deaf; Blind; Multi-Handicapped; Adjustment and Work




Near Death


Central Park






High School II




La Comédie Française ou l'amour joue (+ sound)


Public Housing


Belfast, Maine

Other Films:


The Cool World (Clarke) (pr)


The Thomas Crown Affair (Jewison) (sc, uncredited)


By WISEMAN: articles—

"The Talk of the Town: New Producer," in New Yorker, 14 September 1963.

Interview with Janet Handelman, in Film Library Quarterly (New York), Summer 1970.

Interview with Ira Halberstadt, in Filmmaker's Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), February 1974.

"Vérités et mensonges du cinéma américain," an interview with M. Martin and others, in Ecran (Paris), September 1976.

"Wiseman on Polemic," an interview with A. T. Sutherland, in Sightand Sound (London), Spring 1978.

"Fictions and Other Realities," an interview with J. Gianvito, in International Documentary (Los Angeles), Winter 1990/91.

"Dialogue on Film: Frederick Wiseman," an interview with F. Spotnitz, in American Film, May 1991.

"The Unflinching Eye of Frederick Wiseman," an interview with G. Ferguson, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1994.

"Revisiting High School: An Interview with Frederick Wiseman," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 20, no. 4, 1994.

On WISEMAN: books—

Issari, M. Ali, Cinema Verité, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971.

Maynard, Richard A., The Celluloid Curriculum: How to Use Moviesin the Classroom, New York, 1971.

Barsam, Richard, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History, New York, 1973.

Atkins, Thomas, editor, Frederick Wiseman, New York, 1976.

Ellsworth, Liz, Frederick Wiseman: A Guide to References andResources, Boston, 1979.

Nichols, Bill, Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in theCinema and Other Media, Bloomington, Indiana, 1981.

Benson, Thomas W., and Carolyn Anderson, Reality Fictions: TheFilms of Frederick Wiseman, Carbondale, Illinois, 1989.

Grant, Barry Keith, Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of FrederickWiseman, Urbana, Illinois, 1992.

On WISEMAN: articles—

Dowd, Nancy, "Popular Conventions," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1969.

Schickel, Richard, "A Verité View of High School," in Life (New York), 12 September 1969.

Denby, David, "Documentary America," in Atlantic Monthly (Greenwich, Connecticut), March 1970.

Mamber, Stephen, "The New Documentaries of Frederick Wiseman," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), Summer 1970.

Williams, Donald, "Frederick Wiseman," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1970.

"Frederick Wiseman," in Documentary Explorations, edited by G. Roy Levin, New York, 1971.

Atkins, Thomas, "Frederick Wiseman Documents the Dilemmas of Our Institutions," in Film News (New York), October 1971.

"Frederick Wiseman," in Cinema Verité in America: Studies inUncontrolled Documentary, by Stephen Mamber, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974.

Atkins, Thomas, "American Institutions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1974.

Tuch, R., "Frederick Wiseman's Cinema of Alienation," in FilmLibrary Quarterly (New York), vol. 11, no. 3, 1978.

Nichols, Bill, "Fred Wiseman's Documentaries: Theory and Structure," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1978.

Le Peron, S., "Fred Wiseman," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1979.

Armstrong, D., "Wiseman's Model and the Documentary Project: Toward a Radical Film Practice," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1983/84.

Benson, T. W., and C. Anderson, "The Rhetorical Structure of Frederick Wiseman's Model," in Journal of Film and Video (Los Angeles), vol. 36, no. 4, 1984.

Barsam, R. M., "American Direct Cinema: The Re-presentation of Reality," in Persistence of Vision (Maspeth, New York), Summer 1986.

"Homage," in New Yorker, 20 January 1992.

Pierson, Melissa, "Fly on the Wall," in Vogue (New York), June 1993.

Espen, Hal, "The Documentarians," in New Yorker, 21 March 1994.

Bird, Lance, "Talking Heads: Frederick Wiseman," an interview with Lance Bird, in International Documentary, September 1996.

* * *

In the context of their times, Wiseman's classic documentaries of the 1960s and 1970s are comprehensively anti-traditional. They feature no commentary and no music; their soundtracks carry no more than the sounds Wiseman's recorder encounters; they are long, in some cases over three hours; and, until recent years, they were monochrome. Following the Drew/Leacock "direct cinema" filmmakers, Wiseman developed a shooting technique using lightweight equipment and high-speed film to explore worlds previously inaccessible. In direct cinema the aim was to achieve what they considered to be more honest reportage. Wiseman's insight, however, was to recognise that there is no pure documentary, and that all filmmaking is a process of imposing order on the filmed materials.

For this reason he prefers to call his films "reality fictions." Though he shoots in direct cinema fashion (operating the sound system, in his finest achievements in tandem with cameraman William Brayne), the crucial stage is the imposition of structure during editing. As much as forty hours of film may be reduced to one hour of finished product, an activity he has likened to that of a writer structuring a book. This does not mean that Wiseman's films "tell a story" in any conventional sense. The pattern and meaning of Wiseman's movies seem slowly to emerge from events as if somehow contained within them. Only after seeing the film, perhaps more than once, do the pieces fall into place, their significance becoming clear as part of the whole system of relations that forms the movie. Thus, to take a simple example, the opening shots of the school building in High School make it look like a factory, yet it is only at the end when the school's principal reads out a letter from a former pupil in Vietnam that the significance of the image becomes clear. The soldier is, he says, "only a body doing a job," and the school a factory for producing just such expendable bodies.

Wiseman is not an open polemicist; his films do not appear didactic. But as we are taken from one social encounter to the next, as we are caught up in the leisurely rhythms of public ritual, we steadily become aware of the theme uniting all the films. In exploring American institutions, at home and abroad, Wiseman shows us social order rendered precarious. As he has put it, he demonstrates that "there is a gap between formal and actual practice, between the rules and the way they are applied." What emerges is a powerful vision of people trapped by the ramifications and unanticipated consequences of their own social institutions.

Some critics, while recognising Wiseman's undoubted skill and intelligence, attack him for lack of passion, for not propagandising more overtly. They argue that when he shows us police violence (Law and Order), army indoctrination (Basic Training), collapsing welfare services (Welfare), or animal experiments (Primate) he should be more willing to apportion blame and make his commitments clear. But this is to misunderstand his project. Wiseman avoids the easy taking of sides for he is committed to the view that our institutions over-run us in more complex ways than we might imagine. By forcing us to piece together the jigsaw that he offers, he ensures that we understand more profoundly how it is that our institutions can go so terribly wrong. To do that at all is a remarkable achievement. To do it so uncompromisingly over so many years is quite unique.

In the 1980s he sought to broaden his enterprise somewhat. In 1982, for instance, he turned briefly to "fiction," though Seraphita's Diary is hardly orthodox and it is an intelligible extension of his interests. The subsequent documentaries, still produced at regular intervals, have perhaps not had quite the same force as his 1970s work. Central Park, for instance, is hypnotic in the rhythms of daily life that it invokes, but lacks the sheer power of the earlier films, which focused on the often ferocious tensions found in the collision between social institutions and people at the end of their tethers. Nevertheless, he has had a huge influence on the shape of modern documentary filmmaking, and, with Welfare his most compelling achievement, he remains the most sophisticated and intelligent documentarist of postwar cinema.

—Andrew Tudor

Wiseman, Frederick

views updated Jun 11 2018

WISEMAN, Frederick

(b. 1 January 1930 in Boston, Massachusetts), influential filmmaker who used a "direct cinema" style to produce often controversial documentaries about the interactions between ordinary citizens and social institutions.

Wiseman was the only child of Jacob Leo Wiseman, an attorney, and Gertrude Leah (Kotzen) Wiseman, an administrator at Children's Hospital in Boston. Wiseman attended Rivers Country Day School, graduated with a B.A. from Williams College in 1951, and received an LL.B. from Yale University School of Law in 1954. He married Zipporah Batshaw on 29 May 1955; they had two children. Wiseman worked in the Massachusetts attorney general's office before being drafted into the army. After his discharge in 1956, he and his wife moved to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne. While in Paris he became interested in making short films, using an 8-mm camera.

Returning to the United States in 1958, Wiseman worked as a research associate and then lecturer in family and criminal law at Boston University's Law School. In 1961 he was awarded a Russell Sage Foundation grant to study in Harvard's Department of Social Relations. Then, in 1962, he joined the sociology department at Brandeis University as a research associate. Wiseman's continuing interest in film led him to purchase the film rights to TheCool World, a novel by Warren Miller about Harlem street youth. With Wiseman as producer and Shirley Clarke as director, The Cool World (1964) was filmed on location with nonprofessional actors. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther attributed the "dynamism of this picture" to the "brilliant, brutal picturing of the community as it is … and of the tough youths who range its streets and slums."

Learning from his experience working with Shirley Clarke, Wiseman decided both to produce and direct his next film. His subject was the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, in Massachusetts, one of the places he had visited with his law students to acquaint them with the institutions their future clients might face. After a year of corresponding and meeting with the superintendent of the facility and other state officials, Wiseman secured permission to make a documentary about the Bridgeport facility. He began filming in the spring of 1966 with lightweight cameras and synchronized sound systems, like those the Robert Drew Associates had used in their television documentaries in the early 1960s, to develop the documentary style called "direct cinema."

Wiseman, along with the photographer John Marshall and one assistant, spent weeks at Bridgewater talking with the warden and, accompanied by a guard, observing daily life in the institution. The scenes captured on film were unrehearsed and unplanned. When filming ended, Wiseman sat down with some forty hours of footage to edit. For a title, he used the name of the annual revue staged by patients and staff, Titicut Follies. (Titicut was the Indian name for the Bridgewater area.) Scenes from that show open and close the film. In between are scenes of interactions between the patients and the guards and staff: the force-feeding of an elderly man intercut with images of preparing his body for burial; an inmate's arguing that he be returned to prison because at Bridgewater he was only getting worse; guards taunting a naked man in his room; and a psychiatrist interviewing a child molester. No narration, no interview, no titling explains these and other scenes. The viewer is left to interpret the stark conditions under which the inmates are housed, fed, counseled, and medicated.

In 1967 Titicut Follies was shown at film festivals in Mannheim, Germany (where it was named best documentary feature), in Florence, Italy (where it won the critic's prize and award for the film best illustrating the human condition), and in New York City. In Massachusetts, however, the attorney general's office petitioned the Superior Court of Suffolk County (Boston) to prevent distribution of the film, claiming that it violated patients' right of privacy and the state's right to approve the final film. Another petition was filed with the New York Supreme Court to stop a showing of the film at the New York Film Festival. The New York court denied the petition, and the festival showing as well as a short commercial run of the film followed.

In Massachusetts, in the midst of a politicized discussion about conditions in the state's correctional facilities, the debate over Titicut Follies continued in legislative hearings, in the press, and in the courts. In May 1969 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court modified a lower court's total ban of the film to allow screenings limited to people with a professional interest in the subject, such as doctors, social workers, lawyers, and psychiatrists. Even though an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Burstyn v. Wilson (1952), was believed to have established that film had some protection under the First Amendment, the Massachusetts Supreme Court was successful in prohibiting the showing of a film on grounds other than obscenity or national security. Not until 1991, twenty-four years after Titicut Follies was completed, did the Massachusetts courts lift that restriction and allow general distribution of the film. As Wiseman said to the Boston Globe reporter Paul Langner, "Naturally, I am very pleased… pleased not just for myself, but because it is an affirmation of the value of the First Amendment."

For his second documentary, High School (1968), Wiseman took the photographer Richard Leiterman and one assistant to Northeast High School, one of the best high schools in Philadelphia. Most of the students were from Philadelphia's white, upper-middle class. Wiseman has said on several occasions that the process he observed during the four weeks of filming reminded him of a factory. The film, as edited, seems to reflect that view. It begins as the camera approaches the industrial-looking school building and continues with glimpses of "daily life" as administrators and teachers work to instill social values and norms of behavior to produce useful citizens. The students, however, often seem caught between contradictory demands to follow rules but at the same time to develop their independence. The film ends with an ironic scene: During a faculty meeting, the principal reads a letter from a recent graduate who is headed for a combat zone in Vietnam. The graduate writes that, in case of his death, his insurance money will go to a scholarship fund at the school, and comments that he is not worth worrying about, that he is "only a body doing a job." The principal then says, "When you get a letter like this, to me it means we are very successful at Northeast High School. I think you can agree with me." High School was broadcast by WNET, New York's public broadcasting television station. Responding to viewers' critical reaction to the school as portrayed in the film, school administrators threatened to sue. To avoid legal action, Wiseman chose not to show the film in Philadelphia.

For Law and Order (1969) Wiseman and his crew spent six weeks following the work of officers in the Kansas City Police Department shortly after television viewers had watched police clash with demonstrators on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention. In the film Wiseman presents the complexity of police work in situations ranging from life-threatening ones to mundane ones, in an environment filled with racial tension and expectations from citizens for solutions to problems about which the officers often can do nothing. Broadcast on public television, Law and Order received an Emmy for best news documentary of 1968–1969.

During the 1960s Wiseman worked on several policy research projects through the Organization for Social and Technical Innovation, Inc., a private company he formed in 1966 with a partner, Donald Schon. Wiseman withdrew from the company in 1970 and years later referred to policy research work in the 1960s as a "grand boondoggle." His interest in the effect of institutions on the individual, however, continued to find expression in the documentaries he produced—Hospital (1970), which won Emmys for best news documentary and best director, Juvenile Court (1973), Near Death (1989), High School II (1994), and others. Reflecting on his experience with Titicut Follies, Wiseman acknowledged that one cannot expect a single film to produce social change. In an interview with Cynthia Lucia for Cineaste magazine, however, Wiseman expressed hope that "the films provide people with information and experience to draw upon when they're asked to make decisions about what they want in their community."

In talking about his films, Wiseman often refers to them as "reality fiction." What is real is what the viewer sees on the screen. Using a lightweight, hand-held camera, a synchronized audio recorder, and natural light, he is able to follow events as they actually unfold. Because he spends considerable time on location, talking with people and getting to know the institution, most people ignore the presence of the camera as they go about their normal routines. There is no attempt from Wiseman or his photographer to interfere with or influence their behavior. The film's dramatic structure is created as Wiseman edits the film. For Wiseman, editing is a way of summarizing what he has learned about the institution during the process of filming. Although no narration is added to interpret scenes for us, his point of view does emerge.

From his first films in the 1960s, Wiseman has created an important body of work documenting everyday life in the United States across a broad spectrum of economic and social institutions. Through the images his films provide, viewers are invited to reexamine themselves, their experiences, and their relationship to their society.

An interview with Wiseman about the making of High School appears in Alan Rosenthal, The New Documentary in Action: A Casebook in Film Making (1971). Liz Ellsworth provides a shot-by-shot description of Wiseman's early films in Frederick Wiseman:A Guide to References and Resources (1979). Thomas W. Benson and Carolyn Anderson detail the legal and ethical issues surrounding Titicut Follies and other Wiseman films in Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman (1989). Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman (1992), by Barry Keith Grant, is a useful critical analysis of Wiseman's films. The films are available through Zipporah Films, One Richdale Avenue, Unit 4, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02140.

Lucy A. Liggett

Wiseman, Frederick 1930–

views updated May 14 2018

Wiseman, Frederick 1930–


Born January 1, 1930, in Boston, MA; son of Jacob Leo and Gertrude Leah (maiden name, Kotzen) Wiseman; married Zipporah Batshaw, May 29, 1955; children: David B, Eric T. Education: Williams College, B.A., 1951; Yale University School of Law, LL.B., 1954; also attended University of Paris.


Office—Zipporah Films, 1 Richdale Ave., Unit Four, Cambridge, MA 02140-2610. Agent—Patrick Herold, International Creative Management, 10250 Constellation Way, 9th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90067.


Director, producer, film editor, and sound editor. Zipporah Films, Cambridge, MA, founder, general manager, and documentary filmmaker, 1970—. American Museum of Natural History, member of advisory committee for Margaret Mead Film Festival, 1992—; Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, member of festival committee, 1994—; New York Documentary Festival, member of advisory board, 1997—. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, member of artistic board for American National Theatre, 1985; Harvard University, member of honorary advisory committee for American Repertory Theatre, 1986—; Theatre for a New Audience, member of artistic council and board of directors, 1998—. Worked as a lawyer in Paris, 1956-58; Boston University, Boston, MA, lecturer in law, 1958-61; Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, research associate in sociology, 1962-66; visiting lecturer at other universities. Military service: U.S. Army, 1955-56.


International Documentary Association (member of board of directors, 1986—), Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (fellow), American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow), American Academy of Arts and Letters (honorary member), Organization for Social and Technological Innovation, Les Amis du Cinema du Reel Association (honorary member), Massachusetts Bar Association.

Awards, Honors:

Mannheim Film Ducat, best feature, International Filmfest Mannheim-Heidelberg, 1967, for Titicut Follies; Emmy Award, outstanding achievement in news documentary programming, 1969, for Law and Order; Emmy Awards, best director and outstanding achievement in news documentary programming, 1970, and Columbia Dupont Award, excellence in broadcast journalism, all for Hospital; Gabriel Award for Personal Achievement, Catholic Broadcasters' Association, 1975; Guggenheim fellowship, 1980-81; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant, 1982-87; Columbia Dupont Award, excellence in broadcast journalism, 1975, for Juvenile Court; decorated chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1987, decorated commander, 2000; nomination for Grand Jury Prize, documentary category, Sundance Film Festival, 1988, for Missile; Career Achievement Award, International Documentary Association, 1990; FIPRESCI Award, Berlin International Film Festival, 1990, for Near Death; Peabody Personal Award, 1991; Grand Prix, Marseille Festival of Documentary Film, 1998, and Golden Satellite Award nomination, best documentary film, International Press Academy, 1999, both for Public Housing; Rosenberger Medal, University of Chicago, 1999; Lifetime Achievement Award, Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, 2000; Silver Hugo Award, best documentary, Chicago International Film Festival, 2001, for Domestic Violence; Career Achievement Award, DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, 2002; Award of Merit, Yale Law Association, 2002; Dan David Prize Laureate, 2003; Special Achievement Award, American Society of Cinematographers, 2006; George Polk Memorial Award for career achievement, Department of Journalism, Long Island University, 2006; Lifetime Achievement Award, Chicago International Documentary Festival, 2007; honorary degrees include L.H.D. from University of Cincinnati, 1973, Williams College, 1976, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, 1994, and D.F.A. from Lake Forest College, 1991, Princeton University, 1994, and Bowdoin College, 2005.


Film Producer, Director, and Film Editor:

Titicut Follies, 1967.

High School, 1968.

Law and Order (also known as The Greater Good), Zipporah Films, 1969.

Hospital, Zipporah Films, 1970.

Basic Training, Zipporah Films, 1971.

Essene, Zipporah Films, 1972.

Juvenile Court, Zipporah Films, 1973.

Primate, Zipporah Films, 1974.

Welfare, Zipporah Films, 1975.

Meat, Zipporah Films, 1976.

Canal Zone, Zipporah Films, 1977.

Sinai Field Mission, Zipporah Films, 1978.

Manoeuvre (also known as Maneuver), Zipporah Films, 1979.

Model, Zipporah Films, 1980.

Seraphita's Diary, Zipporah Films, 1982.

The Store, Zipporah Films, 1983.

High School II, Zipporah Films, 1993.

Ballet, Zipporah Films, 1995.

Public Housing, Zipporah Films, 1997.

Domestic Violence 2, Zipporah Films, 2002.

La derniere lettre (also known as The Last Letter), Ad Vitam, 2002, subtitled version, Zipporah Films, 2003.

Most of these documentary films were eventually broadcast as television specials by PBS.

Documentary Film Producer, Director, Film Editor, and Sound Editor:

Racetrack, Zipporah Films, 1985.

Multi-Handicapped, Zipporah Films, 1986.

Deaf, Zipporah Films, 1986.

Blind, Zipporah Films, 1986.

Adjustment and Work, Zipporah Films, 1986.

Missile, Zipporah Films, 1987.

Near Death, Zipporah Films, 1989.

Central Park, Zipporah Films, 1989.

Aspen, Zipporah Films, 1991.

Zoo, Zipporah Films, 1993.

La Comedie-Francaise ou L'amour joue, Zipporah Films, 1996.

Belfast, Maine, Zipporah Films, 1999.

Domestic Violence, Zipporah Films, 2002.

The Garden, Zipporah Films, 2002.

State Legislature, Zipporah Films, 2007.

Most of these documentary films were eventually broadcast as television specials by PBS.

Film Work; Other:

Producer (with Shirley Clarke), The Cool World, Cinema V, 1963.

Film Appearances:

To Render a Life, 1992.

Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment (documentary; also known as Cinema verite-Le moment decisif), National Film Board of Canada, 1999.

There Is No Direction (documentary short film), Temps Noir/Muse Films/Central Films, 2005.

Stage Director:

(And producer) Tonight We Improvise (video sequences), American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA, 1986-87.

Life and Fate, American Repertory Theatre, 1988.

The Last Letter (one-woman show), American Repertory Theatre, 1988, then La Comedie Francaise, Paris, 2000, later Theatre for a New Audience, Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York City, 2003-2004.

Hate, American Repertory Theatre, 1991.

Welfare: The Opera, American Music Theatre Festival, Philadelphia, PA, 1992.

Oh les beaux jours, La Comedie Francaise, Paris, 2006.

Stage Appearances:

The filmmaker, Tonight We Improvise (video sequences), American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA, 1986-87.

Oh les beaux jours, La Comedie Francaise, Paris, 2007.

Major Tours:

The Last Letter, North American cities, 2001.


Documentary Film Scripts:

Basic Training, Zipporah Films, 1971.

Welfare, Zipporah Films, 1975.

Canal Zone, Zipporah Films, 1977.

Model, Zipporah Films, 1980.

Seraphita's Diary, Zipporah Films, 1982.

Racetrack, Zipporah Films, 1985.

Missile, Zipporah Films, 1987.

Central Park, Zipporah Films, 1989.

La derniere lettre (also known as The Last Letter), Ad Vitam, 2002, subtitled version, Zipporah Films, 2003.

Stage Scripts:

(With David Slavitt) Welfare: The Opera, libretto by Slavitt, music by Lenny Pickett, American Music Theatre Festival, Philadelphia, PA, 1992, then Theatre at St. Anne's Center for Restoration and the Arts, New York City, 1997.

The Last Letter (one-woman show; based on the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman), La Comedie Francaise, Paris, 2000, then Theatre for a New Audience, Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York City, 2003-2004.


Contributor to periodicals, including Film Library Quarterly, New Yorker, Sight and Sound, and Threepenny Review.



Atkins, Thomas R., Frederick Wiseman, Monarch Press, 1976.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 20, Gale, 1982.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale, 1998.

International Directory of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, 2nd edition, St. James Press, 1991.


Zipporah Films Web site,http://www.zipporah.com, August 15, 2007.

Frederick Wiseman

views updated May 17 2018

Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman (born 1930) was an American documentary filmmaker whose "fly-on-the-wall" films revealed what happens in a hospital, school, meat-packing plant, police department, modeling agency, department store, zoo, and other public institutions. Many of his films focused public attention on problems in the places he portrayed.

Frederick Wiseman was born in Massachusetts on January 1, 1930. He graduated from Williams College and Yale Law School. Wiseman was a graduate fellow at Harvard for a year and was then drafted into the army. He worked for a short time as an assistant to the attorney general of Massachusetts, then lived in Paris for two years (1956-1958). On his return to the United States he taught at Boston University's Institute of Law and Medicine, often taking his students to visit law courts and prisons.

Titicut Follies

Increasingly bored with the abstractions of the law, Wiseman bought the film rights to The Cool World (1963), a novel about Harlem delinquents, and produced the film, which was directed by Shirley Clarke. After taking his law students to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater, a prison for the criminally insane, to show them the conditions there, Wiseman decided to make his own film. Titicut Follies (1967) is a brutally realistic, extended gaze at the oppressive conditions at Bridgewater, offered without any commentary.

Titicut Follies was widely celebrated by critics and academics, but was attacked in courts by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1968 Judge Harry Kalus ruled in Commonwealth v. Wiseman that Wiseman had breached an oral contract with the state and had invaded the privacy of one of the Bridgewater inmates. Kalus ordered the film banned in Massachusetts. On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Court softened the decision and permitted showings of the film to special audiences; in 1991 the injunction was lifted completely.

In Titicut Follies and the documentaries that followed, Wiseman used a small, unobtrusive crew, including a cameraman using lightweight equipment and no additional lights. Wiseman recorded sound, while an assistant supplied fresh film and tape. His straightforward films contain no on-camera interviews or commentary by the filmmaker. All scenes are unstaged to achieve what Wiseman called "a natural history of the way we live." His films are shot in black and white with no music. Wiseman's method gave the films the feel and texture of reality, but they were deftly and slowly edited in a way that encouraged the viewer to make connections, to speculate about social themes, and to reflect about the subject. "The whole point of this technique is to put you right into the middle of things so you have to think through your relationship to them," Wiseman said in 1993 to Vogue magazine.

"Reality Fictions"

Wiseman called his films "reality fictions," acknowledging that he was employing his own perspective. "All the material is manipulated so that the final film is totally fictional in form although it is based on real events," he explained. Wiseman's films have both the gravity of reality and the pleasures of art. They examine the oppressive, silly, and mundane procedures of human institutions, but they are not cynical, depressing, or vicious. Wiseman's wry, detached tone, accompanied by the patient's probing curiosity of his films, resulted in a humanistic focus on the quality of our everyday lives.

After Titicut Follies, Wiseman produced High School (1968), filmed at the middle-class Northeast High School in Philadelphia, a widely admired exposure of the oppressiveness and boredom imposed on adolescents and their apathetic response. After the angry tone of Titicut Follies and High School, Wiseman turned increasingly to a more complex interest in cultural issues, in which problems and victims are seldom clear-cut. Wiseman's subsequent documentaries were produced under contracts with New York City Public Television station WNET and were often shown on TV's Public Broadcasting System, but rarely in movie theaters.

Wiseman's Law and Order (1969) follows police procedures in Kansas City. Hospital (1970) explores the routines of an urban hospital. Basic Training (1971) shows a group of young draftees being prepared for infantry service in Vietnam. Essene (1972) focuses on a group of Benedictine monks. Juvenile Court (1973) explores a juvenile justice system in Memphis, presenting the paradoxes of attempting to combine justice and therapy. Primate (1974), one of Wiseman's most controversial films, shows the destructive results of human curiosity on a colony of captive apes at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta. The PBS broadcast of the film brought viewer complaints and a bomb threat.

Many consider Wiseman's Welfare (1975) to be his most effective work; it shows the frustrating interaction of a New York City welfare center and its clients. Meat (1975) is a dark comedy about a meat-packing plant in Colorado, where bleating animals are reduced to stacks of neat plastic packages for supermarkets.

Institutions Laid Bare

Wiseman said his goal in his films was to "discover what kind of power relationships exist and differences between ideology and the practice in terms of the way people are treated. The theme that unites the films is the relationship of people to authority."

Wiseman ventured outside the United States in Canal Zone (1977), which shows how American residents of the Panama Canal Zone try to keep their American cultural routines intact. In Sinai Field Mission (1978) Wiseman explored American soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Desert. In Manoeuvre (1979) Wiseman watched a National Guard unit participating in war games in Germany, rehearsing for a war with the Soviet Union.

Model (1980) extended Wiseman's analysis of American culture by looking at how images are constructed in the advertising business. In The Store (1983) Wiseman moved from modeling to merchandising, choosing the Neiman-Marcus store in Dallas as his setting.

Wiseman released one fiction film, Seraphita's Diary (1982), which explores the theme of self-awareness. He went to Belmont Race Track in New York to film Racetrack (1985), then in 1987 released a pair of films on people with disabilities: Blind and Deaf. Also in 1987 he released Missile. In 1989 his Near Death chronicled the intensive care unit of Boston's Beth Israel Hospital. In 1990 he returned to New York City to shoot Central Park. In 1993 his look at Miami's Metrozoo, Zoo, was widely praised. In 1994 he returned to an earlier subject with High School II, about Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem, New York. In 1995 he chronicled the American Ballet Theatre in Ballet. In 1996 Wiseman released La Comedie-Francaise Ou L'Amour Joue, a tribute to a three-century-old Paris theater. "Wiseman at last has made a totally positive case for a human institution," wrote Robert Brustein in the New Republic.

For his work, Wiseman won three Emmys. Melissa Pierson noted in the June 1993 Vogue, "Under Wiseman's steady, perseverant gaze, these almost banal institutions yield fascinating information on their customary play of power, or what happens to individuals venturing into their works, or the gap between what society professes and what it ends up doing. His films require patience, but the viewer is rewarded with crucial truths about the way we live—and lie."

Wiseman told Pierson that he considered his earlier films, Titicut Follies and High School, too "didactic." Thus, in his later years Wiseman tried to avoid being too partisan. "There's a lot of heavy freight connected with the documentary," he said. "It's supposed to instruct us, uplift us, right a social wrong. But it can be other things; it doesn't have to be an exposé. That's too simpleminded. Why bother?"

Further Reading

Wiseman's films are the central texts that he has produced, and they are available for rental or lease from his distribution company, Zipporah Films, in Cambridge, MA. A standard reference work is Liz Ellsworth, Frederick Wiseman: A Guide to References and Resources (1979), which provides descriptive material, and in some cases transcripts, of the films up to 1977, as well as an extensive bibliography. Tom Atkins, Frederick Wiseman (1976), contains several useful interviews and reviews. Several books provide material on Wiseman in the context of documentary film in general; see Richard Meran Barsam, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History (1973); Lewis Jacobs, The Documentary Tradition, 2nd edition (1979); G. Roy Levin, Documentary Explorations: 15 Interviews with Filmmakers (1971); Stephen Mamber, Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary (1974); and Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image (1981). □

Wiseman, Frederick

views updated Jun 27 2018


WISEMAN, FREDERICK (1930– ), U.S. producer, director, and writer. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Wiseman graduated from Williams College in 1951 and from Yale Law School in 1953. After serving as a graduate fellow for one year at Harvard, he was drafted into the army, serving from 1954 to 1956. After working briefly as an assistant to the Massachusetts' attorney general, Wiseman went to Paris, where he studied experimental filmmaking from 1956 to 1958. After he returned to the United States, he taught at Boston University's Institute of Law and Medicine from 1958 to 1961 and served as a research associate at Brandeis University from 1962 to 1966. In 1964, he bought the rights to Warren Miller's 1963 novel The Cool World and produced a film version directed by Shirley Clarke. He directed his first film in 1966, Titicut Follies, a stark documentary about the conditions at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater. While his films feature no commentary and no music, Wiseman acknowledges that his fly-on-the-wall films are edited in a way that conveys his point of view. After Titicut Follies, Wiseman made High School (1968), an examination of the experiences of middle-class students in a Philadelphia high school. In 1968, he contributed to the screenplay for The Thomas Crown Affair, but was never credited for his work. Wiseman followed up his documentary films with Law and Order (1969) and Hospital (1970), an emergency room expose that earned Wiseman a best documentary Emmy. In 1970, he established Zipporah Films, a distribution company named for his wife. From 1971 to 1981, Wiseman had contracts with pbs to shoot one film per year with no limits on time or subject, to be shown first on New York's wnet. His studies included Basic Training (1971); Juvenile Court (1973); Welfare (1975); Meat (1976); and Sinai Field Mission (1978), which featured American soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Desert; and Manouevre (1979). In 1980, Wiseman made the fictional film, Seraphita's Diary. He continued his documentary filmmaking with such films as Racetrack (1985), Deaf (1986), Blind (1987), Zoo (1993), and High School ii (1994), a return to topics introduced in 1968. His La Comédie-Française ou L'amour Joué (1996) was another departure for Wiseman, focusing positive attention on an institution. Wiseman continued to direct documentaries and dramas, most notably the Holocaust drama The Last Letter (2002), but also branched out into theater direction. In 2004, Wiseman wrote and directed The Last Letter, an off-Broadway show based on Vasily Grossman's 1960 novel Life and Fate.


"Wiseman, Frederick," in: Contemporary Authors Online (2004); "Wiseman, Frederick," in: Encyclopedia of World Biography (19982); "Wiseman, Frederick," in: International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors (20004).

[Adam Wills (2nd ed.)]

Wiseman, Frederick

views updated May 11 2018

WISEMAN, Frederick

WISEMAN, Frederick. American, b. 1930. Genres: Poetry, Documentaries/ Reportage. Career: Admitted to the bar of the state of Massachusetts, 1955; lawyer and filmmaker, Paris, France, 1956-58; Boston University Law School, Boston, MA, lecturer, 1958-61; Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, research associate, 1962-66; Organization for Social and Technical Innovation, treasurer, 1966-70; Zipporah Films, Cambridge, MA, filmmaker, 1970-; theatre director, c. late 1980s; visiting lecturer at schools. Director and/or producer of nonfiction documentary films, feature films, and stage productions. Publications: SCREENPLAYS: Seraphita's Diary, 1982. DOCUMENTARIES AS DIRECTOR AND EDITOR: Titicut Follies, 1967; High School, 1968; Law and Order, 1969; Hospital, 1970; Basic Training, 1971; Essene, 1972; Juvenile Court, 1973; Primate, 1974; Welfare, 1975; Meat, 1975; Canal Zone, 1977; Sinai Field Mission, 1978; Manoeuvre, 1979; Model, 1981; The Store, 1983; Racetrack, 1985; Deaf, 1986; Blind, 1986; Multi-Handicapped, 1986; Adjustment and Work, 1986; Missile, 1987; Near Death, 1989; Central Park, 1989; Aspen, 1991; Zoo, 1993; High School II, 1994; Ballet, 1995; La Comedie Francaise, 1996; Public Housing, 1997; Belfast, Maine, 2000. Contributor of articles and interviews to periodicals. Address: 1 Richdale Ave. Number 4, Cambridge, MA 02140, U.S.A.

About this article

Frederick Wiseman

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic