Monday 30 May 2022

Sydney Film Festival - PART TWO of an interview with Frederick Wiseman by Tom Ryan - “I’m not simply observing, or not only observing.”

Editor's Note: This is the second part of an interview with documentary film-maker Frederick Wiseman recorded by Melbourne author and critic Tom Ryan.  It is published to coincide with a season of Wiseman's films being screened at the forthcoming Sydney Film Festival, the ARC Cinema at the NFSA in Canberra and ACMI in Melbourne. Check the websites of each for information about screening times. The first part of the interview which was prefaced by the SFF's catalogue notes and a short introduction by Tom can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE


To what extent do you as a filmmaker ever feel like that guard I’ll always remember from Primate, just sitting and watching while the chimps “behave” in their cages?


Mmm. To what extent do I feel like that?


Yes, as a filmmaker remaining apart from the action?


Well, part of my interest in making these movies is to record contemporary experience. So I feel like I’m doing my job. I’m not like the guy in Primate who’s making observations about the sex life of the gorillas. My job is, as I define it, to make a movie about an aspect of contemporary experience and to organise it in a dramatic form. So I’m not simply observing, or not only observing. I’m there to try to think about what the experience that I’m watching means to me, and then ultimately, in the editing stage, organise it in a dramatic form and in a way that fairly presents the experience I had in making the film. 


So it’s not in any way a passive role, because you’re constantly having to make choices. Choices about the subject matter, choices about what to shoot, how to shoot it, how to edit the material in relation to other sequences, how to impose a form on the film: all of those things represent choices that have to be quite consciously made.


However, there is also still the camera between you and the immediate moment that you are observing that kind of forces you to remain apart. To go back to Primate, my memory of the film – and it’s been a while since I’ve seen it – is that the soundtrack is full of the sound of cage doors being slammed shut. That there’s a sense of everybody on both sides of the bars being prisoners. I was kind seeing of you in that as well, reflecting on what you were doing.


Well, no. You hear the doors clanging. It’s not because I added that sound to make that metaphoric point. It’s because that’s what you hear. It may also make the point that you raise, but it’s not something that’s imposed on the experience. It’s something that you recognize as part of the experience.


Do you regard the kind of work you do generally as essentially anthropological?


No. Because I don’t proceed by any theory. And I’m very interested in dramatic structure and, um, I don’t do studies in the sense that I understand anthropological study. I don’t see myself at all as an anthropological filmmaker, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t resemblances. But I don’t see myself that way, nor do I think about the kinds of things that anthropological filmmakers might think about, at least according to their literature.


When I interviewed Errol Morris a few years ago, he spoke about you as someone who deals with “man at his most dysfunctional, and insane” [the sound of a groan of protest about to come from Wiseman] and he also compared you to Samuel Beckett [a burst of laughter] and your films as “theatres of the absurd”.


Near Death

Well, I certainly like the comparison to Beckett because I’m a great admirer of Beckett. Ah, ah, but I also think that in my movies you get to see people doing, to the best of their ability, lots of kind and generous things. For example, I thought the doctors and nurses in Near Death were extremely sensitive to the needs of the families, which was nice to see. I would say the same thing about the doctors and the nurses in Hospital. Ah, ah, some of the cops in Domestic Violence and Public Housing, the same thing. Some of the teachers in High School 2

My goal, or one of my goals in any case, is to give as rounded a view of human experience as I can and I think I would be doing myself a disservice and being unfair to the people in the movies if I only went for the absurd. It makes the absurd more interesting, actually, when you see it in contrast to the kind and generous.


I haven’t seen all your work. In fact, from my viewpoint, we’ve been denied far too much of it in Australia…


Just let me ask you something, Tom, which may be out of line. If you felt it was appropriate to wonder out loud, to pose the rhetorical question in your article as to why my films have not been shown on Australian television… I think that only one of them, Missile, has ever been shown…


And I missed it because I didn’t know it was on.


Other than that nothing. I’m just saying – you may not feel it’s appropriate, but if you felt it was I’d appreciate it.


Domestic Violence

My opening has already been written and that’s a point I’ve made. I’ve long been championing your work here, if it’s not out of line for me to say that. I’ve been criticising Festival directors around the country for the negligence since the end of the ’80s. We had Ballet in 1995; we had Near Death shown at the Cinematheque in ’89. Um. And we’ve got Domestic Violence. But the others, since the National Library collection here moved in other directions, we simply don’t have access to.


Yeah. The National Film and Sound Archive used to buy them all as they came out each year. And then they stopped. They don’t do that any more.


I used to use one of the films it holds, The Store, every year in my Cinema Studies classes when I taught at university. And you have many other admirers in Australia even if they don’t get as much access to your work as they might like… 

Anyway, I was going to say that, from the films that I’ve seen, there’s a kind of darkness that hovers around the edges, except perhaps in the second half of Ballet, which is kind of celebratory in a way that the others aren’t. Are you conscious of that? Am I misreading it?


No. I don’t think you’re misreading it. It’s also true of the Comédie Française film.


Which you made immediately after it?


Ah, yes. I made it in ’96. I think Ballet was ’92 or ’93.


I was going to ask you in relation to Domestic Violence, why Tampa?


Because I got permission there. It’s very hard to get permission to shoot in a shelter. The city authorities in Tampa liked the idea of a movie and they’re pretty well-organised to try and cope with domestic violence issues. And the co-ordinating council of the city helped with all the things we had to deal with: the cops, the sheriff’s office, legal aid, the court, the shelter and the social agencies. So they liked the idea of it and it resulted in getting me access.


Did you attempt elsewhere and were rebuffed?


No, I didn’t actually. At least I never attempted formally, but I did informally and I got the answer that it’s not even worth asking ’cause you’ll never get into the shelter. And, for Tampa, I met somebody who knew all the people involved in domestic violence in Tampa and it turned out to be quite simple because this couple organised a lunch where they invited all the significant people who dealt with domestic violence. And they introduced me and I spoke for a couple of minutes and I answered their questions and then they said OK.


I know you never use interview material in your work and I was wondering if you ever considered leaving out the information session in Domestic Violence because it was too explicit.


No. Because it happened without my prompting and tours were common in the shelter, I thought it was OK to include it. I mean, I’ve used that kind of event before when I’ve stumbled across it because it helps me. For instance, there’s a scene in Meat where some Japanese visitors are being taken on a tour of the stockyard and I used that. I’m not comparing the shelter to the stockyard: the similarity is the tour. And I thought there was useful information in that tour: in the same way that it was orienting the women in the tour, it orients the viewer of the film.


Your films vary in running-time, but they’re often very long. To what extent does the material you’ve shot dictate this?


To a very large extent. In fact, I feel that my obligation to the subject matter and to the people who’ve given me permission to film them is greater than my obligation to any network backing me. The people in Domestic Violence gave me intimate access to their lives and I feel that I have an obligation to make a film that fairly presents that. 

Domestic Violence is really a film that’s dependent on words, because you’re dealing with a lot of people’s stories. And it takes time to tell those stories. So if you just cut to the punch-line, so to speak – if you did that in Domestic Violence you’d be cutting to the line where she says, “He put out his cigarette on my arm,” or “He tried to kill me” – it’d be like, you know, one of those cop shows. I feel an obligation to create a context, and that takes time. 

I mean, I’ve made films that are shorter. They vary from 73 minutes to close to six hours. But I feel that I have a greater obligation to the subject matter than I do to any broadcaster. My goal is that the final film be a fair report on what I think I found. And in the United States, PBS has accepted that. Because even Near Death, which is close to six hours, ran without interruption.


They ran it for the whole six hours?


They ran it on a Sunday afternoon, a grey, winter Sunday afternoon from 2 in the afternoon to 8 at night. There wasn’t any football on and it drew quite a large audience. And most of the films, the ones that are three or three and a half hours, are run in prime time, they start at 8 or 8.30pm, or occasionally 9, and they run their full length. Naturally, I like that.



To what extent do you think the length affects the wider distribution of your work? 


Well, I’m sure in terms of television sales that that’s an issue. But, on the other hand, they would be very different films if I cut them. I’ll give you an example. Many years ago, during the war in Vietnam, I did a film on army basic training [Basic Training, 1971] – I think it’s 89 minutes – and CBS wanted to run it if I’d cut it to 54 minutes as a whole 60 Minutes program. I said no. I said that if you liked the film at 89 minutes, it’s not gonna be the same film at 54 minutes, and it’s gonna present a very different view of army basic training. And several years later the same thing happened when I made Welfare, which runs for three hours and which they wanted me to cut back to 54 minutes.

So there are two situations where I know that the film didn’t get a wider distribution because I refused to cut it. And I’m sure that’s true with many television networks around the world. The programming times are arbitrary choices too. I mean, people say they have to be 54 minutes. Well, that’s just as arbitrary as my saying they have to be two hours and three quarters. Except it’s the custom.


Errol Morris says he’s been trying to persuade you to put your films on DVD. Is that possible in the near future. 


Yes. It’s possible. I may do that, but I actually haven’t had time to investigate that. [Wiseman’s work is now readily available on DVD through his website:]


What do you think of digital video?


Well, I’ve never shot anything in it and I don’t know that much about it. Of the little that I’ve seen, I don’t think the quality is anywhere near as good as film. And as long as I can continue to get the money, I’m going to continue to work in film. You know I understand why people shoot in digital video: it’s much less expensive. Or at least theoretically it’s much less expensive: I don’t know whether, as a result, people shoot a lot more than they would have with film. But I just don’t think the quality is there. 

For the next film that I do, maybe I won’t be able to raise the money that I need, so I’m not gonna stop working because I can’t shoot on film. But I’m gonna make a big effort to always try and do it. [Soon after this interview, largely for budgetary reasons, Wiseman began shooting his films digitally.]


You’ve had a major influence on other filmmakers. Who are the people who have influenced you, whose work has somehow affected the way you work, the way you think about your work?


Well, I’m not very good on that kind of question. I think actually I’ve been much more influenced by literary sources than film sources. “Literary” sounds too fancy: I’ve been influenced by the novels and poems and plays that I’ve read than by the films that I’ve seen.


Which novels and plays and poems?


Well, Beckett, Ionesco, Philip Larkin, you know. The usual villains.

And in what ways?


Well, for instance, the best book I ever read about film editing was Ionesco’s essays on playwriting [Notes and Counter Notes: Writings on the Theatre, 1963, by Eugène Ionesco]. Because in his writing about the play and about how he constructed his plays, it was as if he was writing about movies. He wasn’t talking about the technical stuff, but about how you construct a play and deal with ideas in a play. And I just translated everything he was writing into my own issues in film editing.

What filmmakers have you admired?


There was a film that I saw early on, even before I got started, called Football made by somebody named Jim Lipscomb, and it was about two high school football teams getting ready for a championship game in Miami. I think I saw that film early in the 1960s and it really opened up my eyes to some of the possibilities for documentary film, because I’d always been interested and I hadn’t yet made any, or any that had seen the light of day. And that made me more aware of some of the possibilities and that happened to correspond with some of my particular interests.


Do you watch other contemporary documentaries?


Yeah. When I get a chance because I work most of the time, and when I’m not working I travel a lot, go skiing or something. I don’t get the chance to see many movies at all, whether documentaries or any other kind. Probably in the last year, I’ve seen four movies.


High School

There’s an austerity to your work – and this comes from left field – that reminds me of Bresson’s films.


Oh, that’s a high compliment. Bresson is somebody I admire and I’ve seen a lot of his work.


I mean, in the first High School, there are sequences that actually follow the same strategies as in Lancelot du Lac, made a few years later – of close-ups of hands and feet moving – and so on that remind me of the kind of abstraction at work in Lancelot.


I’ve never seen Lancelot.


It’s full of the sounds of the armour and shots of feet in stirrups and hands clutching lances, and you get the sense of humanity, or the individuals, being broken up into these various aspects…


Oh that’s interesting. I’ll have to see if it’s available here. It must be somewhere. 


One final thing: I believe you’re currently working on a fiction feature?


Yeah. I finished a fiction film in April. It’s called La derniere lettre, based on a chapter from a great Russian novel called Life and Destiny by Vasili Grossman. I did it originally as a play in France about two years ago and then as a result of that I got the money to do a movie. I didn’t shoot the movie as a play, but it’s based on the same source material. And it was shown in Cannes this year as an Official Selection and it’s gonna open in Paris in November and in the States in January. Maybe it’ll be shown in Australia at the festival next year. 

It might have been ready before the deadline this year, but with all the work that was going on getting it ready, I missed out on sending it to Melbourne.


I understand it’s your second fiction film?


About 20 years ago, I did an experimental thing called Seraphita’s Diary. It never got much of a distribution. 


Why the interest in fiction?


Why not? I happened to read this novel, Life and Destiny [also written by Grossman, in 1960], and I thought this chapter would make an interesting movie. It wasn’t something that lent itself to being a documentary, so why not try it? I don’t feel for ideological or any other reasons that I’m bound to one particular form. In the same way that I’ve occasionally directed a play, it’s because it was fun. It was interesting to try something new. And if I come across other material that I think might make a good fiction movie, I’ll do it. But I lovemaking documentaries and, of course, I’ll continue to do that.



Sunday 29 May 2022

Sydney Film Festival - Bruce Hodsdon considers The cinema of Satyajit Ray - The Projection of "our" India

These notes have been specially written for this blog by scholar and critic Bruce Hodsdon and are published to coincide with the 10 film Ray retrospective at the 2022 Sydney Film Festival screening from June 9. Titles included in the season are highlighted. CLICK HERE TO FIND SESSION TIMES AND MAKE BOOKINGS



In 1950, following the declaration of Indian sovereign independence, the Prime Minister Pandit Nehru appointed the S.K.Patil Film Enquiry Committee to report on the direction and reshaping of the film industry post independence, its report on content shaped by the divide between contending ideologies with arguments around “issues of authenticity: realist rootedness versus indigenous mass culture and nationalist utopia versus the regionalist components of nationalism.”


At about the same time Satyajit Ray (1921-92), inspired by Italian neo-realism was struggling to complete the self-funded Pather Panchali(1955), an adaptation of an early 20th century classic of Bengali fiction,


                   It was a major success, notably in the way his realism extended Nehruite,

                   post-independence rewriting of Indian history in light of the current progr-

                   ammes of Industrialisation and non-alignment...Ray's realism, repeatedly,

                   and in often uncanny fashion, evokes the tone of the book [Nehru's 'Disc-

                   overy of India' published in 1946 and a  'foundational text' for  the whole

                   nationalist enterprise], especially in the way [Ray]  symbolises realism its-

                   elf, as a vantage point from where to restage  'the past': to re-present me-

                   mory in a land that could now,so to speak,celebrate  the arrival of history.”

                                                                 Ashish Rajadhyakshin (Nowell-Smith (ed) p 682)


Ray apparently followed Nehru's suggestion in making the two sequels (Aparajito,Apu Sansar/The World of Apu) to form a trilogy which he based on a western literary form, the bildungsroman or coming of age novel, which had its origin in Germany in the 18th century and was popularised in Western culture, c1900.


Ray's accomplished naturalism focusing on everyday life in an Indian village attracted critical recognition in India as an art film but limited in its appealfor general Indian audiences. A major reason given for the failure of Aparajito witha wider audience in Indiawas its portrayal of the rift between mother and son, motherhood being sacrosanct in popular Hindi cinema exemplified by the all-time Hindi   classic Mother India(1957).


American director John Huston, filming in India, saw some sequences from Pather Panchali talked with Ray and contacted the Museum of Modern Art in New York which took on its distribution. Pather Panchali ran for 8 months in a NY cinema in 1958.



Realism becomes more mannered in the period films that followed. In Jalsaghar/The Music Room (1958) a feudal aristocrat is estranged from reality in his obsession with his past and his art. Devi/ TheGoddess (1960), an Ibsen-like play on the power of supersition, was the first of four films Ray made at this time with the central focus on a woman. Teen Kanya/Three Daughters (1961),  and in Charulata (1964) further form “a mosaic of highly mannered gesture and painstakingly reconstructed sets, encoded and understated evocations of period” including adaptations ostensibly through the eyes of Ray's mentor, the Nobel prizewinning Bengali poet, writer, playwright, composer and philosopher, the extraordinary Rabindranath Tagore. 

Three Daughters, based on three Tagore stories, was made in celebration of the centenary of his birth. These films are in a Tagore-based tradition of Asiatic Orientalism to which Ray remained an adherent (A.R. ibid 682)*. He spent two years studying painting at Sandiniketan, Tagore's open university, the abode of peace “where the world becomes one nest”, at that time finding himself as an artist. Ray produced a moving documentary tribute to the great man, The Inner Eye, narrated by himself.


In a shift in style and tone Mahanaghar/The Big City (1963) is set in the urban world of anglicised lower middle class Indians, ironically following the progress of a young woman from subdued housewife to achieving equality in her job only to resign in solidarity with a friend who had been unjustly dismissed. Mahanaghar has been praised for qualities comparable to that of an Ozu comedy. Ray was always concerned with the “social identity” of the characters, something Indian song-and-dance films ignored.(Barnouw & Krishnaswarmy 238).


His aspiration to make art films led to questions about Ray's loss of contact with wider Indian audiences. While recognised for the international success of the trilogy and later films such as Charulata (his personal favourite of his films), Ray's continuing preference for making films in Bengali  firmly categorised him in popular discourse as the most prominent of “a generalised category of directors celebrated as being culturally rooted in their context” ( AR 682).  Nayak/ The Hero (1966) is similar in theme to Bergman's Wild Strawberries: in the course of a 24 hour journey the arrogance of a Bengali matinee idol is a facade that is stripped away in an extended interview with a journalist and interspersed with dreams and flashbacks revealing the troubled man beneath the surface. Ray said that he wrote the screenplay only for the lead actor, Uttam Kumar, and would not have made the film if he had refused the role.


Ray had few substantial box office successes in India, the national market being dominated by films in Hindi in the north and Tamil and Telugu films in the south. Many Bengali films were not widely distributed outside Bengal at the time. India has a history of film societies (Ray was co-founder of the Calcutta Film Society in 1947) but not of nationwide arthouse exhibition. He had only one major home success, a musical fantasy based on Indian mythology that left overseas audiences puzzled, Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne (1969).


 A seminal film, Aranyer Din Ratri/ Days and Nights in the Forest (1969), is one of his best regarded internationally for its contemplative mood in a blend of Chekov and Jean Renoir - Ray had worked as an assistant searching locations for Renoir's Indian film The River (1951). Nights has been described as almost an extended remake of Renoir's short film Une Partie de Campagne(1936) filtered through another sensibility with four young men from Calcutta on leave for a few days in the country replacing the French bourgeois family.  


Company Limited

In the 'Calcutta trilogy' - Pratidiwandi/ The Adversary (1970), Seemabadha/Company Limited (1974) and Jana-Aranya/ The Middleman (1975) - there is a darkening of mood and stylistic departures in Ray's films in the post-Nehru era ushered in by the Naxalite peasant insurrection and student revolts in Calcutta.  In The Adversary centred on the anger and violence associated with the disillusionment that comes with youth unemployment, Ray uses disjunctive distancing devices – negative imagery and a flash forward – for the first time. Corruption is central in both the succeeding films, ironically in The Middleman which Ray described as “a kind of black comedy.” Mrinal Sen, in his own Calcutta trilogy made at the same time, sought to directly participate in current politics.


Following the Calcutta trilogy the growing complexity, even ambivalence, of Ray's later work, in mode more akin to modern European art cinema, appeared to alienate at least a part of the relatively elite Indian audience for his earlier films. Shatranj ke Kilari/The Chess Players(1978) is made up of two stories reflecting on each other. What many viewers expected, Satti Khanna suggests, was “a reconstruction of the splendours of Moghul India” (as in Jalsaghar) and “the decency of upper class Bengal” (as in Charulata). “What they found was a stern examination of the sources of Indian decadence. According to Ray, the British seem less to blame for their role than the Indians who demeaned themselves by colluding with the British or by ignoring the public good and plunging into private pleasures.”


This point of view was not popular with the monopolistic distribution set-up of Hindi cinema. Instead of a simultaneous release of Ray's first film in Hindi was delayed for seven months and then denied fair exhibition in a number of Indian cities. Generally well-received internationally, The Chess Players took some years to recover losses from the Indian release.


His second film in Hindi, Sadgati/Deliverance (1981), made for TV, is “his sharpest indictment of caste and religious orthodoxy,” it was attacked by some critics for its 'lack of anger' and commitment to which Ray replied that “it was not the anger of an exploding bomb, but of a bow stretched taut and quivering.” ( Garga 224)


Ray was the complete filmmaker; as well as directing he wrote the original story and screenplay, designed the sets and composed the music for many of his films.


In the year before his death in 1992 Ray was awarded an honorary Oscar for “rare mastery of the art of motion pictures and for his profound humanitarian outlook.” David Thomson in an overview concludes that “the rhetoric had been earned, but Ray seemed more than ever the projection of “our” India – not quite India's India.”The former was close to being projected internationally as the 'real' India by Ray  through a realist and Tagorean lens close to fully realised in his films from Pather Panchali to Mahanaghar. To aid the achievement of that sense of reality Ray had immersed himself in European, Soviet, American and other cinemas at film society screenings in Calcutta and during 8 months of intensive film viewing in London in 1950. The projection of “India's India,” always elusive, in cinema has come to embrace a spectrum of narratives from masala to art cinema, the latter also taken up radically by Bengalis Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, and younger filmmakers who were inspired by Ray's example as he had been by Tagore.


*  For those interested in exploring this subject further, search online under Tagore's Asiatic Orientalism for an article in 'Punch Magazine'  Do Indians have Tagore's idea of being an Asian? by Devdan Chaudhuri? , and an essay Tagore's Orientalism by Yu-ting Lee in 'Taiwan East Asian Studies'.



Ashish Rajadhyaksha, “India: Filming the Nation” The Oxford History of World Cinema, Nowell-Smith ed. 1996

Pradip Krishen, “Knocking at the Doors of Public Culture:India's Parallel Cinema” Public Culture  v4/1 India 1991                                                                              

David ThomsonThe New Biographical Dictionary of Film Sixth ed. 2014

B.D. Garga So Many Cinemas The Motion Picture in India 1996

Erik Neher  “Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy Restored”  Hudson Arts Review Summer 2015

John Pym  “The Chess Players” review  Monthly Film Bulletin March 1979

Suresh Jindal  My Adventures with Satyajit Ray The Making of Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players)

Satti Khanna “Satyajit Ray” The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers  Vol 2 Directors  Christopher Lyon ed. 1984                 Erik Barnouw & S. Krisnaswarmy  Indian Cinema 2nded. 1980

see also online: Helen Goritsas, “Great Directors: Satyajit Ray”  Senses of Cinema, May 2002                                                                                                             


This note is adapted from an entry on Indian Cinema in the 60s in an ongoing series on Global Art Cinema in Film Alert.            


Thanks to Adrienne McKibbins for advice



Monday 23 May 2022

A despatch from John Baxter in Paris observing the goings on at Cannes

 No one seems to have noticed that the woman protesting at the Cannes Festival two days ago has the word “SCUM” inked on her rear. This was the acronym for the Society For Cutting Up Men, the hate group conceived by Valerie Solanas who, in June 1968, set out to murder Maurice Girodias, head of Olympia Press, but not finding him, shot and almost killed Andy Warhol instead. SCUM was assumed to have died with her in 1988. Perhaps not so……

John also sent the note above to a number of other friends. He then received this in response from movie/tv writer/director 
Michael Elias.


In the 60s if you were a performer or personality and couldn't get on Johnny Carson, or Merv Griffin, there were a few local shows that were available - Alan Burke, Joe Franklin, I can't recall the others.  Burke was conservative and confrontational, but he booked comedians and he liked me and my comedy team partner - we would go on his show, do a sketch, and banter for a few moments. One night Valerie Solanas was a guest along with us. I knew her slightly - we turned up at the same places in the East Village, Washington Square -  or the Living Theatre. We did our routine, then it was Valerie's turn.

Burke introduced her, got her to talk about SCUM,  then dived in with a nasty abrasive attack. At one point Valerie said something like "What the fuck does that mean?"

Burke: "What did you just say?"

Valerie: "I said, fuck. Is that a crime?"

Burke: "This interview is over."

Valerie: "Why? Because I said fuck? Don't tell me I can't say fuck."

Burke: "You can't. Get off my show."

Valerie: "You're kicking me off the show because I said fuck?"

Burke; "Leave immediately."

There was a 20-second delay then, so everything stopped.

Valerie: "Fuck you."

Stagehands advanced, and she got up and left.

When we came out of the studio Valerie was waiting on the sidewalk. 

Valerie: "Can you believe what that asshole did?"

Me: "Valerie, you can't say fuck on television."

Valerie: "I'm tired of taking shit from these assholes."

A few days later she shot Andy Warhol."

Thursday 19 May 2022

Sydney Film Festival - Tom Ryan presents an interview with Frederick Wiseman to coincide with a major retrospective of the director's work at the 2022 Sydney Film Festival, and at ACMI and the National Film and Sound Archive

Frederick Wiseman

Editor's Note: But first....This is the introduction to the Frederick Wiseman retrospective in the SFF catalogue:



I’m making movies about common human experiences, which differ from place to place because traditions, customs and habits differ. But the basic experiences are the same. I think my subject is ordinary experience. I attempt to create a dramatic structure drawn from ordinary experience and un-staged, everyday events.” – Frederick Wiseman 

In an award-studded career spanning seven decades, acclaimed veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has invited us into worlds we may never have known we cared about until he showed them to us.  

His ‘reality fictions’ – he disdains notions of cinéma verité, direct or observational cinema – chronicle the functioning of contemporary American institutions (schools and prisons, libraries and welfare agencies), with occasional explorations of illustrious international establishments of every ilk and what makes communities tick.  

His patient gaze, which eschews narration, interviews and background music, reveals the lives and experience of people within these structures or neighbourhoods, be they on the job or enjoying iconic sites such as Central Park. At times it also captures the creative process.  

Though his apparently neutral camera seems to dispassionately record whatever it happens upon, often from up close, Wiseman’s highly structured oeuvre – editing the many hours of footage can be a year-long process – conveys empathy with its subjects. It is also clear that he engenders trust, his camera is never intrusive.  

After an early venture into film production, Wiseman decided to make films he would direct, produce and edit himself. “The most sophisticated intelligence in documentary”, to quote Pauline Kael, has followed this path ever since, creating a peerless body of work that, with passing time, offers a historical perspective of humanity in the 20th and 21st centuries.   

It Takes Time: Ten Films by Frederick Wiseman at SFF Book at


Domestic Violence

“Voyages of Discovery”


For a variety of reasons, despite the fact that Frederick Wiseman is widely regarded by many as the world's greatest living documentary filmmaker, his work hasn’t been widely distributed Down Under. One of these reasons is the running-times of his films, which frequently make considerable demands of their viewers. 


While this might be a turn-off for some, there are inestimable rewards on offer in the ways in which Wiseman allows us to discover the daily rhythms of the institutions he visits, whether it be the Atlanta University Primate Research Center, in Primate (1974, 105 minutes), the terminal ward of Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital in Near Death (1989, 358 minutes), the Central Park East Secondary School in New York's Spanish Harlem, in High School II (1994, 220 minutes), or Chicago’s Ida B. Wells housing development project in Public Housing (1997, 195 minutes). Or, indeed, in Domestic Violence (2001, 194 minutes), which depicts the cycles of interviews, therapy sessions and staff meetings around which Florida’s The Spring operates.


Occasionally, film festivals have sat up and paid attention. But local audiences have otherwise been denied the chance to see his work. Now, that’s about to change. A welcome partnership between ACMI in Melbourne, the Sydney Film Festival and the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra is offering a 10-film retrospective of the still-active 92-year-old’s work along with a pre-recorded master-class. 


From his 44 feature-length documentaries, two fiction films and the handful of other projects for TV, there’ll be chances to see both his first film, Titicut Follies (1967), and his most recent one, City Hall (2020), as well as Welfare (1975), Central Park (1989), High School IIBelfast, Maine (both1999), Domestic ViolenceLa Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (both 2009), In Jackson Heights (2015), and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017).


Wiseman’s approach is simple, direct and highly disciplined. He doesn’t use interviews, narration or superimposed captions, and you’ll never see him on camera, asking questions (like Errol Morris) or being an agent provocateur (like Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore), or arguing a case (like your usual TV doco). He’s always talked modestly about his films as “voyages of discovery” and his style is observational, the camera serving as a patient, unobtrusive witness, sitting back and watching rather than darting about frantically, wearing its vérité spontaneity on its sleeve.


He meticulously follows his own rules and his view of the events he’s recorded only emerges through the editing, in what he chooses to show us and how he orders it. He assembles his material as an artist rather than an instructor, respecting the intelligence of his audience, allowing understandings to emerge rather than dictating what they should be. As he puts it in the same measured tones that are evident in his films, all of them should speak for themselves.

The following interview was recorded prior to a screening of Domestic Violence at the Melbourne International Film Festival. It is being published here (in two parts) for the first time.



I understand you’re currently editing Domestic Violence 2?


I’ve just finished editing it.


What made you feel another chapter was necessary?


Well, the first film, as you know, deals with the police and the shelter. The second deals with domestic violence in cases in three different courts, an arraignment court, an injunction court and a misdemeanour court. So, it’s another aspect to the issue, about the way the participants present the facts in the court and the way the court deals with them. Also in this movie you get to see the perpetrators, as they’re called. In the first one, you mainly saw the women and the children. 


Did you have to shoot the same amount of footage for both?


The total footage for the two films was about 115 hours. They were shot consecutively. I went down to Tampa and spent eight weeks there. About four weeks of that was the first film and about four weeks of it was the second.


So do we actually see the same people in both?


No, you don’t see any of the same people because some of the cases of the women you see in the first movie had been disposed of in the court and some hadn’t reached the court. But you see similar kinds of cases. Nobody follows from one movie to the other.


It’s unusual for a filmmaker as reputable as you to have a sequel in their credits. 


[Laughs] Well, it’s not a sequel in the traditional sense. It’s just another aspect of the same subject. It’s not like, er, ah, ah, er, what are they called, ah, Men in Black 2. (Further laughter]


I got the sense in Domestic Violence that the all-male police were well-meaning but ill-equipped to deal with the problems they found themselves faced with. Is this the way you experienced it from behind the camera?


Well, it depends what you mean by “ill-equipped”. Actually I thought they were pretty good. I don’t want to put myself in a position of making a judgment about police behaviour, because I’m no expert. But, in terms of the sensitivity they displayed in the situation, and given the limitations of what the law allows them to do, I thought they were quite good. 

You say “all-male”, but there’s a woman cop in the last sequence in the film – although there are no women cops in the sequence at the beginning of the film. And in that last sequence, by law there was nothing they could do to arrest the man because he hadn’t yet committed a crime of domestic violence. And he was, in fact, the one who called the police. To me, that’s one of the reasons that it’s so interesting: because it’s so complicated. All they could do was try to reason with him. Even though he was drunk and even though he was threatening, he had in fact committed no crime. I don’t know what the situation is in Australia, but it’s true under Florida law. 


I think it’s probably generally true.  

To go to that final sequence: the camera wanders around the room, but there tends to be a recurrence of shots of the largely-silent female police officer. She was attentive, but she didn’t really speak. 


Oh, she speaks a little bit, but not very much. The camera is also on the man when he speaks and on the cop when he speaks and on the woman who’s living in the apartment when she speaks. I haven’t figured it out exactly, but I would think that if the camera is on the woman cop for 10% of the sequence it would be a lot.


Maybe I was reading the film in terms of the male voices that dominated the police work and the female voices that dominated in the crisis centre and seeing that as suggesting things about the situation – as many of your films do – without declaring them specifically.


I think that’s probably likely. I mean “likely” in the sense that that was what the film was doing. I can’t speak for how you were reading it. Certainly I think –  whether it works or not is not for me to say – but I think that in that last sequence there are all kinds of implications that are related to the events that you see in the earlier part of the film. The last sequence in many ways summarises principal aspects of what you’ve previously seen.


Was there an aftermath to that sequence?


I don’t know. I went off in the cop car and I know that I spent the rest of the night in that car and they weren’t called back to that particular neighbourhood.


You get the sense that the man is rationalising the situation: I called you, so you can’t blame me for what happens now?


Yeah. She’s gonna go sleep on the couch and he’s gonna go sleep in the bedroom and they’ll wake up in the morning or you don’t know if he’s gonna beat her up. You do know that he shot at her car two weeks prior to that, but it’s completely up in the air, so to speak.


There were also a lot of shots of women there – most of them African in appearance – who were sitting silently in the background…


A lot of the women didn’t talk in those group sessions. They were physically present, but they didn’t talk. 


Did you ever try to draw them into the foreground?


No. I never try to provoke anyone to do anything, or stimulate anyone to do anything. My job is to record what’s going on as if I weren’t there. I like the audience to know that what they see and hear in the film would have taken place if I hadn’t been there. And I think it’s true that if I’d tried to bring them into the discussion, then events would take place or things would be said that might not have been said except for my presence.


But you could, for example, have used one of their interview sessions with a counsellor. Or was there something prohibiting that?


Frankly, I didn’t think of that as an issue. Many of the women in the interview sessions are not the women you see in the group. One or two of them are, but most of them aren’t. So I didn’t think about that particular question in relation to those women.


As a viewer, I became fascinated by them. I found myself watching them and their responses to the speakers to see if there was silent assent, but very often it’s almost as if they’re in another place.


Some of the women are participants and really wanted to do something. Some of them are there because they had nowhere else to go. And some are reluctant participants and are just waiting to let time pass so that they would feel comfortable about leaving the shelter and not really availing themselves of the services that the shelter offered. 


One of the most distinctive features of all of the films of yours that I’ve seen is that none of those who pass in front of the camera ever seem to look at it. Do you ever worry that they’ve not only got used to your presence but are adjusting their behaviour for you camera, performing if you like for your benefit?


One of the reasons that you don’t see them looking at the camera is that, whenever it happens I have a cutaway, I cut it out. My experience is that, by and large, for reasons that I don’t fully understand, it’s very rare that anyone looks at the camera. I also don’t happen to think that people change their behaviour because they’re being photographed. I don’t think people have the capacity to act that differently. If they don’t want their picture taken or their voice recorded, they’ll say “No!”, or walk away, or thumb their nose or whatever. But if they agree, most people aren’t good enough to alter their behaviour because their picture is being taken. They can alter it in the sense of saying “No!” or walking away, but not in terms of putting on a performance, a different performance. Because if they could do that then there’d be a much larger pool of actors from which movies could be made. 


Did it take long for the women to get used to your presence in the crisis centre, or did it happen spontaneously?


It happened instantly, and not just in that film but in all the films. I mean, there’s material in that film from the first hour of shooting. Again, I don’t know if there’s an explanation – and if there is one I don’t know what it is – but the fact of the matter is that that’s never been a problem for me. It’s never been a problem that I had to hang around for a while before people get used to the camera.


In the shelter, or what you call a crisis centre, the staff and a lot of the women were there for a period of time and I saw them every day. In many of the films I’ve done – for instance, in Welfare [1975], the one I did a number of years ago about a welfare centre – the people were just popping in and out. They might, say, come in the morning and spend a couple of hours in the welfare centre and do their business and then leave. And that would be the only time that they were there. They had no idea in advance that a film was being made and yet the scenes in Welfare are just as intimate as the scenes in Domestic Violence

Among the possible explanations are indifference, vanity, ah, media saturation… I don’t know that any one explanation, or any group of them, is adequate. It’s just that, in my experience, and I can’t speak for other documentary filmmakers, it’s simply not a problem. And the only thing I do to defuse it as a potential problem is to be very clear about what I’m doing and how the film’s gonna be used. I don’t bullshit people because I think their bullshit meter is going to be at least as good as mine. 

I get permission from people, sometimes before the sequence and sometimes after it, and if they don’t agree I don’t use it. And if they thought I was conning them, they’d say “No”, or they’d get wary. But it’s very rare that anybody says “No” after the sequence has been shot. 

But I don’t know if any of that is the explanation for how people become comfortable in the presence of the camera.


PART TWO will b published shortly.

Sydney Film Festival is also screening a ten film retrospective devoted to the work of Indian master Satyajit Ray selected by David Stratton. Information on titles, times etc can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE