By Paul Risker.
1967 marked the inception of Frederick Wiseman’s documentary filmmaking career (with the controversial asylum expose, Titicut Follies), but fast-forward to the present day and behind him now lies a total of forty-seven diverse films. If there was a singular inspirational moment or spark for this observational career path, then the seed was the ordinary through which he felt the burgeoning need to create a record of his observations. “What drew me to making documentaries is the recognition that in an ordinary experience there is great drama, comedy, tragedy and sadness. As in the great works of literature you don’t create it; you happen to be lucky enough to be there when it is happening; to be able report it on film and recognise it for what it is. It is only in the last maybe fifty-five years that technology has existed to make a movie about anything, and so my interest has been in reporting as many different aspects of the human experience as I can, providing a form for them in the context of a dramatic narrative film which is based on staged events.”
Any current discussion of Wiseman is centered on National Gallery (2014), but before taking a look at the fabric of a London cultural institution, he spent time in an American educational institution in At Berkeley (2013). In September, 2013, at the time of the film’s tour of the festival circuit, I was afforded a window of time to interview Wiseman while he was in London. During our brief conversation he looked back to the experience of making At Berkeley and the process of crafting or rather discovering a film through the observation of the shoot and the edit.
The first question I asked him was why At Berkeley, and more precisely why this particular subject at that particular point in his career? As he told me, “As part of an institutional series that I’d been doing, I had wanted to do a university for a long time, and I had wanted to do a public university. Berkeley is the great public university and so I wrote to the chancellor and asked his permission. He asked me to come out to see him and I did. I had lunch with him and after lunch much to my surprise he said ‘Okay,’ and I started shooting three months later. But I was very lucky that they gave me permission, and it is also an indication of their attitude and openness that they would give me access to what they do.”
With At Berkeley now behind you, how did the experience inform your perspective on the American education system?
Well, I am no expert on education, but one of the reasons Berkeley is a great university is that it teaches the sciences and the humanities with equal intensity – sports as well. So it has a great faculty and as a result, it attracts the best students. Berkeley is also interested in providing an education for students from low income families, and so it is an example of something that used to be more common in America than it is now. A characteristic of Berkeley is that people can improve their economic status in life by getting a good education, and it deliberately sets out to provide that opportunity. At least a third of the students are on scholarship. Even during their financial crisis, they have found ways of increasing the number of scholarships, and they are committed to a racially and economically diverse faculty and student body.
Does the diversity of reality and the everyday mean that we don’t need to re-enact it but rather just encounter it and shoot it?
Well, again, you have to hang around long enough, and not everything you shoot is interesting. For At Berkeley I had 250 hours of rushes, and even though the film is four hours long I only used one sixtieth of the material. But it’s interesting because what is involved in the editing is the requirement that I at least try to think my way through the material.
Documentary filmmakers frequently encounter the daunting task of sifting through and condensing a mass of rushes. In talking to some documentary filmmakers I get the impression that they have an idea of what they want to say, while others don’t necessarily plan what they want to say but rather let the story find itself. How do you personally approach a film?
I don’t even start off with an idea of what I want to say. I only started with the idea that if I hang around Berkeley long enough then I could find a film. That was the only idea I had because I didn’t know anything about Berkeley before I started. I’d been there once for a day or two, and the whole idea was the final film would be a report on what I’d learnt. But I didn’t start off with the point of view that I was going to say the following about Berkeley, because the point of view emerges from the experience of being there for twelve weeks, followed by studying the material for fourteen months until I find the film. I mean it’s the old cliché about the sculptor finding the statue under the stone. I find the film under the rushes or in the rushes.
Are you inspired by other documentary filmmakers and their work?
One documentary filmmaker who I like a lot but who makes films that are very different to mine is Marcel Ophüls. The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) which is a movie about French collaboration with the Germans during the war and Hôtel Terminus (1988) which is a movie about one of the Nazi war criminals; those are two great movies. In terms of documentary filmmakers I think he is the one I admire the most, but I don’t know if they inspire me.
From your copious work in the documentary genre, how important and relevant do you think the documentary still is in our contemporary society?
Well, I’m bad at that kind of cultural generalisation, because I don’t see that many other films. So I have no idea how to assess the impact of a documentary or what affect it has on an audience. I keep my eye on making my own films.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.