There’s a tremendous paradox about Frederick Wiseman: he’s one of the most acclaimed living filmmakers, and has directed a new movie for nearly every year of the past five decades, and yet his work has remained inaccessible to the vast majority of potential viewers. This is especially idiosyncratic given that Wiseman is a documentarian, and the digital age has generally made documentaries widely available. But Wiseman has made and released all of his works through his own company, Zipporah Films, and never put them out for traditional commercial distribution. Most of his films could be directly purchased from Zipporah on DVD 10 years ago — just in time for DVD to be supplanted by streaming and downloads. With brief exceptions, his filmography has not been viewable on the internet. Until now.
Early this year, Zipporah closed a deal with Kanopy, a streaming platform for libraries and academic institutions, to host almost all of its 50-year catalogue of titles. This week, Wiseman’s documentaries went live on the site. Now, not just one generation but a wide panoply of people are able to either rediscover or dive into his work for the first time. It is especially fitting that the films are on Kanopy, which requires only a library card or student/faculty ID to access. Wiseman has been a frequent partner of public television, and many of his movies explore public institutions.
Most of Wiseman’s films tell you plainly what they are about through their titles: High School, Hospital, The Store, Racetrack, Zoo, State Legislature, National Gallery, to name a few. Each is a portrait of its namesake, traveling the spaces within these places and scrutinizing both the people who run them and the people who make use of them. You will not necessarily learn how any of these institutions are run — Wiseman is not making educational or informational documentaries — though there are plenty of glimpses behind the scenes, following administrators and workers of all functions and levels. There aren’t any traditional narrative arcs. A film will not follow a specific story or sequence of events taking place at its location, nor will it find a single character or group of characters to center itself around. There are no infographics, voiceover narrators, expositional title cards, or interviews. Wiseman started out not long after the birth of direct cinema and cinéma vérité, and uses their observational aesthetics without quite belonging to either tradition.
Each documentary is a collage of vignettes, concerned primarily with the total experience of these institutions. If you see how it is built, what it is like to make it work from the lowest rung to the top of the ladder, and how these elements do or don’t come together to let it run properly, then you can gain a greater understanding of a school, jail, mental institution, library, theater, or anything else. Wiseman is doing in cinema something similar to what Studs Terkel did with his oral histories, though in an observational rather than testimonial mode, and based around locations rather than time periods or broad social topics. He will approach his subject without much preparation, shoot over 100 hours of footage over several weeks, and then find his film in the editing room, culling the most interesting and illuminating moments he’s captured and linking them together in a way that makes sense.
Choosing from the more than 40 Wiseman films now available on Kanopy is a daunting prospect. Any one of his films is worth checking out (and many of them are masterpieces), but here are some good places to start with:
Titicut Follies (1967)
Wiseman’s debut feature was banned from general distribution for over 20 years by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, on the basis that it “violated the dignity and privacy” of patients at Bridgewater State Hospital, a mental institution. This was because the movie documented how guards and orderlies were routinely violating the dignity and privacy of the patients. It’s a chilling survey of apathy and dehumanization on a mass scale.
A welfare office is host of myriad little frustrations and aggravating encounters. After starting out with 80- or 90-minute films, Wiseman began doing more thorough investigations of his subjects, and the nearly three-hour runtime helps immerse the audience in the mindset of someone stuck in bureaucracy.
Released right as the Cold War was ending, this examination of trainees in the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program lays out the unnerving reality of nuclear warfare, and how the fate of so many is placed in the hands of a few. Its relevance has not waned even as geopolitics have shifted significantly.
Domestic Violence (2001) and Domestic Violence 2 (2002)
These two documentaries are of one piece, each depicting one side of living with abuse. The first features numerous police calls dealing with domestic violence disputes, while the second takes place in family courts overseeing bail, restraining orders, child support, and the like. The overall picture is a harrowing trip through the lives of people for whom the supposed basic foundation of society, the family, has failed.
In Jackson Heights (2015)
Rather than a single institution, here Wiseman explores a community, and uses an epic three-and-a-half-hour canvas to incorporate as many aspects of the titular neighborhood as it can. Local government, activist groups, cultural and religious centers, and other facets of the diverse community are all given a moment in which to shine.
Stream Frederick Wiseman’s movies on Kanopy for free with a library card, or faculty or student ID.