The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Morgan Shiver, Contributor • June 20, 2024

Accomplished filmmaker visits campus

For more than 40 years, noted documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has explored various institutions across the country. Along the way, Wiseman has used his eye for humanity and investigative reporting skills to capture a small slice of America at a moment in time. His films have spanned a vast genre of social issues – from Law and Order (1969) to Deaf (1986) and Blind (1987) to Public Housing (1997).

From behind his camera lens, Wiseman has logged tens of thousands of hours worth of footage to capture a wide range of social and class strata, including Welfare (1975), Ballet (1995) and Domestic Violence (2001). As he explained to an audience of students, faculty and guests at SMU’s Hughes-Trigg Theatre April 14, his drive to examine such issues is simple.

“I’m a curious person,” he said. “I’m very curious about human behavior.”

Wiseman spoke as part of SMU’s The Past in the Future, a semester-long series of classes, programs and creative work analyzing the changing nature of human rights.

“In one sense, I’m doing a sort of national history,” he said.

The history that Wiseman documented is not always appealing to the eye, mind or heart. In a violent scene from Law & Order, white Kansas City policemen are shown choking a young black woman they believe to be involved in the murder of a fellow officer. The short clip appears to complement the image of a brute police officer, a stereotype many felt was helped along when the incident was recorded and used in the documentary.

“When Law & Order was shown at a police convention a year or so after it was made, [Kansas City police chief Clarence Kelly] was criticized by some other police chiefs for giving me permission to make the film,” Wiseman said. “Kelly’s response was, ‘If you don’t think that’s going on in your departments, you’ve got your heads in the sand.'”

Such is the eye-opening nature of Wiseman’s most influential works. In fact, his curious temperament is manifested not only in the films he makes, but also through the insight and knowledge he has gained from extensive travel and experiences.

“When I make the final film, one aspect of the film is a report on what I’ve learned,” he said. ” ‘Law & Order’ was shot in fall of 1968, after the police riots in Chicago at the Democratic convention. And I, like most of the middle-class people who were following that, thought police were all pigs.

“But when you ride around in a police car [for] 20 or 30 seconds, you realize that the ‘pig-ery’ is in no way restricted to the police because you see what people do to each other.”

After being trained as a lawyer in his native Massachusetts, Wiseman turned to filmmaking and produced “The Cool World” in 1963. In 1967, he both directed and produced “The Titicut Follies,” the first of 37 full-length features in which he has pulled such double duties. Among his many honors, the filmmaker has been awarded multiple Emmys, a Peabody and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

For all his time spent behind the camera, however, Wiseman does not interject himself or his voice into the films – a pleasant deviation from today’s crop of loud and biased documentaries. Instead, his subjects and their actions serve as narrator; Wiseman silently observes with a handheld camera and lets the story tell itself.

“The point of view emerges during the editing process,” he said. “Writing a script before filming wouldn’t work, he continued, “because abstractions are one of the ways humans think.”

This unique presented-as-is approach to filmmaking adds a palpable sense of reality to any location or circumstance, be it a “State Legislature” (2006) or sardine factory (“Belfast,” “Maine,” 1999). While documenting these and many other institutions through intimate images, he has drawn praise from critics worldwide.

“Wherever Wiseman points his camera, people’s lives bubble up,” wrote Peter Rainer in New York Magazine, “as if the intensity of their experience was there all the time, waiting to be grasped … He’s the most democratic of great movie artists.” Philipe Pilard, in an article published in France’s La Sept/Arte, dubbed Wiseman Chronicler of the Western World.

Wiseman, not emboldened by titles or awards, remains a man dedicated to the process of filming and editing. His motivation and choice of subject are straightforward and “…whatever interests me at the moment,” he said. And he avoids putting too much thought into naming the films.

“I just try to pick a simple title that has a bit of resonance for me,” he said.

It is with this air of simplicity that Fred Wiseman seems content to capture storytelling snapshots of his ever-evolving country.

“This institutional … series of films give an impressionistic account of American life during the time that I was working,” he said.

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