Frederick Wiseman’s daily lives
Within historiography, depending on the purpose to which its wide-ranging, fascinating procedures are applied, we can find a great deal of potential to comprehend how and why our History is written. If we move beyond the traditional compartments pondering on this from a political, economic or social perspective, delving, in fact, into these social issues, we can perceive a division which could successfully make use of the seventh art as one of its sources: the history of daily life, which has turned the essential aspects of how people live their lives into its field of research. Similarly, the meteoric burgeoning of the production of documentaries as soon as the costly infrastructure of celluloid was no longer essential to film them, pushed up the numbers of audiovisual records we might describe as “daily life”. Thus the reflection of any realities forming part of people’s private environments has taken over a still-growing volume of documentary cinema.
In this area of work we find many filmmakers – the debutants, the consolidated and the veterans-, with particular success in the case of Wang Bing, Nicolas Philibert or Claire Simon, but I do not believe any of them would have any qualms in confirming the origins of a portion of the inspiration for their way of homing in on “daily life”, on the objects and subjects described in their films, as the director who will be taking this year’s Mikeldi of Honour Award at the International Festival of Documentary and Short Film, Frederick Wiseman (Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 1930).
On the subject of observational documentaries, the name Wiseman is not just another reference, but rather an authorial distillation of a way of recognising our society through films which may have originated in the so-called Direct Cinema which emerged in the United States in the late 1950s, but which, from a treacherously subjective perspective (if not openly political), serves up films for an understanding of those “daily lives” of the latter half of the 20th century, the social conflicts, rites, customs and aspects pilfered by political correctness from a reality presumably less appealing to fiction cinema or to more “canonical” documentaries.
At the age of almost 94, his impressive list of films (almost 50 feature films, shorts and several episodes for the renowned PBS series Independent Lens) has rightly bestowed upon him the aura of a legendary director, able to continue to show in each new documentary the same intuition he demonstrated in the seminal Titicut Follies (1967), a stunning portrayal of the lives of the inmates of a psychiatric prison in Massachusetts, viewed by an audience which even today is bowled over by the “reality” recorded on Wiseman’s invisible camera. This maiden feature film – followed by High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court (1973), Meat (1976), The Store (1983) and Near Death (1989), among many others – is the best exponent of a work that served, as very few others could, to extend the Utopian objective of direct cinema to transform the footage and sounds of films into something that those watching the films would be able to see and hear if they were present in the shooting location at the time. Not, however, aseptically, but from the perspective of a filmmaker with a political stance.
Wiseman has always claimed that all his films are tinged with the subjectivity inherent to any cinematographic decision. And, in his case, not merely to announce his point of view on the contents he presents to viewers (or the reaction of the filmmaker himself who “intervenes” and modifies reality with his presence), but also because he wishes to bolster the narrative force of his films, categorically shunning the cliché that documentaries have to be didactic and/or boring. His versatility as a director – demonstrated time and time again in his black and white celluloid films – was also revealed, and from a fresh perspective, in many of his films shot in the 21st century, often applied to minute descriptions of the processes and mechanisms of the institutional structure of the United States: for example, State Legislature (2007) – on the functioning of the Idaho State parliament -, At Berkeley (2013) – more than 250 hours of material were taken from the United States’ oldest public university for a four-hour film -, National Gallery (2014), Ex Libris (2017) or Monrovia, Indiana (2018). With this kind of film trajectory under his belt, it need hardly be said that the director has notched up a large number of awards: in 2016 he won an honorary Oscar for his entire career, but his accomplishments have also been acclaimed at festivals such as Cannes, Venice, Turin and Jihlava, and many years ago he also took honorary awards from the IDA (International Documentary Association), the American Society of Cinematographers, and also from Los Angeles and New York film critic associations.
The audiovisual recordings provide us with an incomparable opportunity to capture reality, trap it, and transform it into a register. Wiseman himself has declared on several occasions that his objective as a filmmaker was simply to present an impression of contemporary life in the United States. Several decades on, at such a juncture (paying tribute to a clearly astounding career), we may well prefer to use the verb “transmit” instead of “present” to describe the opportunity afforded for viewers of the present and future by the films made by Wiseman: an impressive series of registers as building blocks for an interesting chapter in the History of daily Western life from the middle of the last century to the present day (the very recent City Hall (2020) had its State premiere at ZINEBI 62, and was declared best film of the year by French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma). In an interview thirty years ago with journalist Charlie Rose on PBS (the public US television network Wiseman has worked with on dozens of occasions), the director described his career as follows: “the topic is normal life, and the personages are normal people”.
In view of the magnitude of his artistic legacy, the International Festival of Documentary and Short Film of Bilbao is settling up a debt outstanding to the greatest living documentalist with the 2023 Mikeldi of Honour Award.