CO-FINANCED BY: KUJAWSKO-POMORSKIE REGION, MINISTRY OF CULTURE AND NATIONAL HERITAGE FROM PROMOTION OF CULTURE FUND AND POLISH FILM INSTITUTE
DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER FREDERICK WISEMAN WITH CAMERIMAGE AWARD
Monday October 2nd, 2017
Though documentary cinema has never been as popular as fiction films, its cultural and social function cannot be stressed enough, for it shines new light on various contexts and conventions that govern the way the world of humans works. It facilitates the process of defining and familiarizing the surrounding reality through unearthing its various aspects, often misunderstood for one reason or another. It enables us to go beyond our own limits, at least partly, and thus to better understand other people. The 21st century saw a rapid increase in popularity of documentary films, the result of which is hundreds of intriguing projects being greenlighted every single year. And hence, it is quite common for people to get lost within this multitude of emotions, thoughts, and perspectives. One of the solutions may be returning to the creative output of distinguished documentary filmmakers who guided us with their films for decades and taught us the importance of empathy, consideration and putting ourselves in someone else’s situation.
Frederick Wiseman, Honorary Oscar® recipient and the author of more than forty feature projects, is definitely such a filmmaker. This November he will come to Bydgoszcz to talk with the festival’s participants about his documentary ethos, inspirations and passions, and to accept the Camerimage Award for Outstanding Achievements In Documentary Filmmaking. Wiseman, who occupies a special place in the world of documentary filmmaking, will join the ranks of previous Camerimage recipients: Jay Rosenblatt, Marcel Łoziński, Kim Longinotto, Joan Churchill, Steven Okazaki, Albert Maysles, Terry Sanders, and Kazimierz Karabasz.
The cinema of Frederick Wiseman is not easy to digest, for it demands both the viewers' complete attention, something which is becoming increasingly difficult in this constantly accelerating world of ours, and their intense participation. Investing your emotions and experiences in order to feel and understand the emotions and experiences of the characters, people similar to us, though put in situations we would not like to be put into. The best example is Wiseman’s directorial debut, Titicut Follies, in which the filmmaker closely observed the workings of the state prison hospital for the criminally insane. The film provoked an outrage and because of that it was labelled as scandalous, but you may look in vain for another equally cinematic depiction of institutional dehumanization of either the bygone days or the world we live in right now. Titicut Follies still evokes strong emotions, proving indisputably that the line between the primitive and the civilized was, is and always will be very thin.
Dozens of films later, Frederick Wiseman still holds the same values; he did not change his attitude towards documentary filmmaking or their audiovisual qualities. When he begins working on a project – whether the subject is deaf students learning to communicate with the outside world (Deaf), or observing the intricate mechanisms of a ballet company (La danse) – he loses himself completely in the given world. He spends several weeks in it, observing, searching, absorbing, shooting hundreds of hours of footage, often in collaboration with cinematographer John Davey, who will also be the guest of Camerimage. Next, Wiseman goes into a laborious process of editing, reworking, adding, cutting, repeating, using carefully selected images and sounds to mold the footage into a self-explanatory narrative which will present his personal experience of the given world to the viewer, while also guiding the audience through its many complexities. It results in an audiovisual amalgam of emotions, thoughts and reflections that makes you stop what you are doing, take a look around, and adopt a new perspective.
At the same time, Wiseman swims imperturbably against the modern currents and trends. He shoots the kind of films he would like to watch, he tells stories that come straight from his heart and mind, as well as fifty years of shaping the instinct of documentary filmmaker. His projects, produced and distributed by Zipporah Films which he founded, typically run for hours (Near Death, a tale of workers and terminally ill patients of Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, is almost six hours long). No talking heads, no alluring montages, no voiceover suggesting how one should feel and perceive what is happening on the screen. Although in his films he analyzes the ways of mainly American institutions, as well as their influence over people’s mentality and identity, Wiseman excels in creating humanistic cinematic odysseys that are extremely accurate observations of the condition of the modern Western world. While his characters, always depicted with a professional distance but also warmth and understanding for their typically human flaws, are always inseparable from the filmmaker and his worldview.
To put it in other words, Wiseman finds human drama in the mundanity of everyday life, and recognizes the mundanity of everyday life in each and every human drama he depicts. As in Boxing Gym, in which the titular facility becomes a meeting place for people from various backgrounds who find the motivation in sport to face the greyness of the everydayness. Or as in Basic Training, in which Wiseman showcases how young people are being shaped into soldiers – through discipline, rigor, and carrying out orders without asking unnecessary questions. It will probably help them survive the inferno of the Vietnam War, but at the same time it will deprive some of them of a part of their humanity. Wiseman’s deliberate pacing enables him to contemplate over various, seemingly trivial matters, thus making the viewer rethink those and dig deeper by rejecting numerous social conventions that surround them.
Frederick Wiseman does not believe in the objective truth. He says that the only thing a documentary filmmaker can do is to investigate and discover. Find the complexity in what is seemingly obvious and trivial, and convey this to the audience in a form that will not lose this depth while encouraging to explore the matter on their own. As in In Jackson Heights, in which Wiseman shows bits and pieces of how life goes within the titular neighborhood in Queens, New York which became famous for its cultural and ethnic diversity, resulting in speaking as many as 167 languages. This melting pot of voices, vocabularies and emotions is very much audible in the film. Unsurprisingly, in his projects Wiseman controls every aspect of what the viewer hears and sees. While working on a documentary, he operates the recording equipment which enables him to create precisely the world he witnessed.
The cinema of Frederick Wiseman defies easy categorization and labelling, and the filmmaker himself, together with his unmistakable ethos, can be seen as the Walt Whitman of the world of documentary filmmaking. An author who filters everything through himself, containing multitudes of attitudes and perspectives. In the film industry, which undergoes significant changes every couple of years, Frederick Wiseman has consciously stayed true to his non-conformist identity. And that is precisely why his upcoming projects are almost always considered important cinematic events. We are honored to host such an experienced and empathic filmmaker at the 25th anniversary edition of Camerimage Festival, during which we will screen some of his feature projects. Frederick Wiseman will also meet the festival’s participants after the screenings of selected projects.