The pattern of dehumanization and humiliation documented by Frederick Wiseman in TITCUT FOLLIES (1967) prefigures the abuses committed by the U.S. military at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by some 30 years. That knowledge makes the film, already disturbing enough on its own, even more difficult to consider; it seems the brutalization of the prisoners at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane plays out a power dynamic destined to be repeated time and again. Wiseman’s film is an unblinking catalog of the mistreatment that man can commit against fellow human beings who have been shorn of their free will. The most damning evidence of the complete moral failure by the state of Massachusetts to care for their charges came from the state itself, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ordered the film banned and the negative destroyed on the grounds that Wiseman had violated obscenity laws and privacy concerns in making it. It took 25 years for that ruling to finally be fully overturned. What still remains to be resolved is how the cycle of prisoner abuse can be escaped. Following the screening, friend of Stranger Than Fiction Hugo Perez spoke with Wiseman. Click “Read more” below for the Q&A.
Stranger Than Fiction: I’d like to ask you about the circumstances making this film, and the legal situation that resulted when you tried to distribute the film.
Frederick Wiseman: I had permission, obviously, to make the film. You don’t parachute into Bridgewater in the middle of the night and leave at dawn. I had permission from the lieutenant governor, who was in charge of the prison system, the commissioner of corrections and the superintendent at Bridgewater. The lieutenant governor who arranged for me to make the film was Elliot Richardson, who went on to greater fame in Watergate and the Nixon Administration. When the film was finished I showed it to all of those people and they liked it. Then the reviews began to appear and the reviews were critical of the state of Massachusetts for allowing Bridgewater to exist. And a social worker who lived in Minnesota who had formerly lived in Massachusetts wrote a letter to the governor of Massachusetts expressing her horror at the fact that there were naked men shown in the film. It was the first the governor had heard of the film. The attorney general at that point was Eliott Richardson, because in the year between the time the film was shot and the time it was released Richardson had become attorney general. Richardson wanted to run for either governor or the Senate, and he thought his political career would be damaged when it became known he had been instrumental in my getting permission. He had the choice of either supporting the film and saying, yeah let Wiseman make the film because Bridgewater was a pretty horrible place and we wanted to have the public aware of it so perhaps the legislature would appropriate more money. But he made the other choice, which was to protect himself, and got an injunction preventing the film from being shown in Massachusetts. He tried to prevent it from being shown in New York and failed, because New York courts wouldn’t accept it. Then there was a legislative hearing to determine how I got permission to make the film, which was really an effort by the Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature to get Richardson. Then there was a trial in Massachusetts, and there were three principle points in the trial. First, that I had breached the privacy of Jim, the man shown naked in his cell. Two, that I had breached an oral contract giving the state editorial control over the film. And three, that the receipts should be held in a trust for the benefit of the inmates. I won on the trust issue, which was what they call a pyrrhic victory since there were no receipts. The court found that the right of privacy existed in Massachusetts. It was the first time the right had been found to exist in the state, because the right either exists as a result of the legislature, or common law tradition. The judge ordered the negative be burnt and described the film as a nightmare of ghoulish obscenities. The case was appealed to the Mass Supreme Court, which said the film had value, but could only be seen by limited audiences consisting of doctors, lawyers, judges, legislators, people interested in custodial care and students in these and related fields, but not the merely curious general public. I could show the film on condition that I give the court and attorney general’s office a week’s notice of any screening, and then file an affidavit after that everybody who saw the film fell into the class of people allowed to see the film. That would require a personal police force, so the film was never shown. Then, around 1973, there was a new attorney general for Massachusetts, and he amended the restraining order and allowed me to rely on someone else’s representations. So if a college wanted to show the film and represented to me that the audience consisted of the allowable class of people, I could then rely on that and file a requisite affidavit. So the film was shown quite a bit on campuses and in public libraries. And then in the mid 80s, the original judge died—there was a headline in the Boston Globe that read, “Titicut Follies Judge Dead.” I wasn’t disappointed to read that. I brought another case asking that a new judge reconsider. The new judge appointed a lawyer to investigate whether the showing of the film would harm the surviving inmates. At that point, there were 31 surviving inmates. He determined that if the film were shown it would not only not hurt them, but benefit them. The judge then said I could show the film if I blanked out the faces of the inmates. I refused to do that and appealed. He finally reconsidered and said the film was protected by the First Amendment, and the film was shown. I barely resisted when the film was shown in a theater in Boston to put on the marquee, “A Nightmare of Ghoulish Obscenities.” That’s sort of the short version of the story.
STF: In 1967, when you were shooting this film, did you have any idea that you would, on and off, spend 24 years fighting for your film to get seen.
Wiseman: No, of course not. Also, I was very naive.
STF: How did going through that experience affect your work in the future as a filmmaker?
Wiseman: It confirmed me in my view that Duck Soup was a documentary.
STF: One of the scenes in this film that I think catches everybody’s attention is the forcefeeding scene. The way that it’s edited, the parallel narrative—you’re cutting back and forth between the forcefeeding and the same inmate’s body being prepared for embalming. It was something that was not common editing.
Wiseman: Well I wouldn’t do it now, I think it was a mistake. It forces the issue too much. At the time, I thought it was terrific. But now it embarrasses me. It forces the issue in the sense that it’s too heavy handed editorially. It would have been better, I think, to show the force feeding, and then a couple of sequences later, show the guy being made up for his funeral. Then you could come to the conclusion yourself that he was treated better in death than in life. The way I edited it, it’s heavy handed.
STF: People refer to your work as observational cinema, or verite or direct cinema, and I understand that you don’t care for any of these terms.
Wiseman: Well, I don’t know what they mean. As far as I’m concerned, I make movies. That’s a good enough designation.
STF: Do you have a philosophy to your filmmaking?
Wiseman: Shoot a lot of film, and find the story in the editing. That’s very deep.
STF: Works for us. Over the course of your career you’ve made films at a lot of different institutions that, taken as a whole, give us a look at our entire society. Is there an important institution of our society that you haven’t been able to hit?
Wiseman: Oh yeah, lots.
STF: Any that you still think about chronicling?
Wiseman: The White House, the CIA, the FBI. You know, I’d never get permission. There’s an inexhaustible list of subjects. I don’t think even in one lifetime you could do all possibilities. Even if I’d started when I was six.
STF: I wish you had started at six.
Wiseman: Me too.
Audience: What happened to Vladimir?
Wiseman: He got out of Bridgewater maybe eight or nine years after the film was made. He then went to work in Brockton, Massachusetts at a supermarket and died a few years later. When he got out of prison I invited him to come and see the film. He liked the film, which pleased me. He was a nice man—the scene with Vladimir is really the key scene of the film as far as I’m concerned. It’s clear that Vladimir is sick, but it’s also quite clear that he’s not getting any treatment at Bridgewater, or any useful treatment, I guess.
Audience: Was the film begun as an advocacy project?
Wiseman: In the mid-70s, long after Richardson had gone to greater glory, there was a new prison built, and a lot of prisoners at Bridgewater who had been there for many years—some for 40 or 50 or 60 years—were discharged. The prison population went down from about 900 to about 350. They had a modern building and the medical and psychiatric services were provided by a consortium of the teaching hospitals in the Boston area. That persisted for a number of years, 15 or 20 years. Then the medical schools lost the contract and it was given to a group of private doctors. And I’ve been told, although I don’t know this from my own experience, that the quality of care has deteriorated. That’s what I heard, I don’t know that for a fact.
Audience: How did your experience with Titicut Follies change the way you approach the different institutions to get permission?
Wiseman: Well, I approached it the same way, in the sense that I asked for permission, and then afterward wrote a letter summarizing what my understanding was. And then I asked whoever I was dealing with, usually the head of the institution, to sign the letter, which became an informal contract which stated how the film was going to be shot, where it might be shown, how it was going to be edited, and that I would have complete control over it. In the Follies, I tried to get written releases from everybody, and I got them from many people. But there were some people that I didn’t get releases for, not because they refused, but because in the press of events I didn’t get them, by negligence really. At the trial, that was made to appear as if they had turned me down. For all subsequent films I never got written releases, but I get tape recorded consents. Sometimes before the sequence is shot, but most often after the sequence is shot. And that, in Massachusetts, is valid. I explain that I’m tape recording, and explain, basically, the same kind of things that are in the letter, and ask them to give their assent. It’s very rare that anyone turns me down.
STF: You studied law before becoming a filmmaker—
Wiseman: Well, my little joke about that is that I was physically present in law school. It’s the word study that I had a problem with.
STF: Do you think an understanding of the law is beneficial to filmmakers?
Wiseman: I think the fact that I went to law school sometimes intimidates people in contractual negotiations, but I don’t think it’s had any effect on the way I make the films or anything else.
Audience: Has your method of making films changed over the years, in regard to production and also in regard to how you carry yourself in the spaces you’re filming in?
Wiseman: Basically, it’s the same system. I’d like to think that over the course of the years I’ve learned something about how to make a film. And I think I’ve learned most about how to make a film because I edit them myself. When you’re editing one film and don’t have the shot you need, you tend to remember to get the shot the next time you’re out and in a similar situation. Basically, it’s pretty much the same system. Small crew, I don’t do any research. The shooting is the research. Shoot a lot of film, anywhere from—the least is 75 hours, the most is 250, and figure it out in the editing. I don’t even begin to think about structure until I’m seven or eight months into the editing, when I’ve edited all of the so-called sequences that I think might make it into the film. When I’ve got all those candidate sequences hanging on the wall, then I work out the first structure in three or four days. Then I have an assembly, and it takes me six or seven weeks to arrive at the final form of the film. At that point, it’s mainly working on the rhythm, the internal rhythm within the sequence, and the relationship between the sequences. Then the last thing I do is look at all of the rushes to see if there’s anything that I’ve forgotten that might solve a problem that I haven’t resolved.
Audience: When you were filming, especially when men were naked, did you ever feel moments of awkwardness, as if you were complicit in their humiliation?
Wiseman: No, I’d seen naked men before. No, I thought the fact that many men were kept naked in their cells at Bridgewater was an important part of the subject. There was no reason, for example, that they couldn’t have paper suits. The rationale for keeping them naked was that they were suicidal. A principle other reason was that they were incontinent, or some of them were incontinent. Some of them may have been incontinent in response to the way they were kept. But even if they were incontinent they could have been given a paper suit, because a paper suit is easy to take off. It was really that the guards objected, it was messier to deal with a fouled paper suit.
Audience: Do you follow the rest of the contemporary documentary scene, and if you do, what you think about other documentaries.
Wiseman: I don’t go to the movies very much, I don’t have time.
Audience: Obviously this was shot on film, was Crazy Horse also shot on film?
Wiseman: No, Crazy Horse was shot on HD. I can’t get the money to shoot on film. It’s hard enough to get the money to shoot on HD. There’s such an enormous difference. Forty-eight minutes of HD is about $40. And 48 minutes of film is about $1,100.
STF: You also previously made the jump to color from black and white for technical reasons, because the color stocks were faster. But do you ever get the itch to shoot in black and white again?
Wiseman: Near Death was shot in black and white, and The Last Letter, which is a fiction film, was also shot in black and white. I wanted to do Ballet in black and white because I thought it would be more stylized, I thought it would look better in black and white. But we looked at the rushes the first day shooting, and they were unusable because the light was so bad. We went back the next day with fast color stock and it was fine.
Audience: What period of time did you spend in Bridgewater?
Wiseman: Twenty-nine days over a period of three months.
Audience: I’m wondering about the follies themselves, and when you came over that. It’s just such an amazing built-in metaphor. Did you know early on that it was going to be the open and close of the film, the title of the film?
Wiseman: When I planned to shoot the film, I knew they were rehearsing and performing Titicut Follies. They did it annually, and they continued to do it after the movie was made, but they changed the name of the show. Titicut is actually an old Indian name and Bridgewater, the prison, was on Titicut Street. There’s nothing prurient about the title.
Audience: What was it like to shoot this movie, because watching this movie makes you feel kind of crazy? What was it like for you going to work to shoot?
Wiseman: It was really interesting. I basically couldn’t stay away. It was certainly a strange experience but it was a fascinating one. But that’s always the experience because all these worlds, which are the subject of the film, most of them, with the exception of High School and Basic Training, are new to me. The fact that you’re working is also a kind of defense against some of the horrible things that you’re seeing. That makes it easier to deal with emotionally.