INTERVIEW: A Master's Unflinching Eye; Wiseman Returns with "Domestic Violence"
by Jesse Moss
(indieWIRE/ 01.29.02) — The opening moments of Frederick Wiseman‘s newest documentary, “Domestic Violence,” will be disturbingly familiar to U.S. audiences. In a working class neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, police officers responding to routine calls are plunged into bitter and bloody family disputes. But these scenes, a staple of syndicated reality shows like “COPS,” acquire a new, heartbreaking resonance in Wiseman’s unflinching film, which begins in a squad car then quickly shifts its attention to the Spring, Florida’s largest shelter for battered women and their children. Wiseman was granted extraordinary access to document the everyday experiences of women admitted to the shelter, and has returned with a sprawling, revelatory portrait in the tradition of “High School,” “Juvenile Court” and “Welfare,” his previous “institutional” documentaries.
Wiseman, age 71, and his small crew slip through the shelter’s hallways, capturing therapeutic group discussions, small counseling sessions, staff meetings and casual conversations. In the shelter’s warm embrace, women and their children are encouraged to talk about their feelings and their experiences. Their stories are painful, exhausting, and, finally, illuminating. The staff and counselors of the Spring are heroically patient. And so is Wiseman, who witnesses but never intrudes. In subtle fashion, through the accumulation of powerful fragments and vignettes, the film explores the complexity of domestic violence: the damaging, self-perpetuating cycle of abuse, passed from generation to generation; and the reasons why women are often unwilling or unable to leave their abusive partners.
Midway through the film, after we’ve come to know a few of the residents of the Spring, Wiseman quickly shows us their physical scars: a broken nose, a black eye, a swelling bruise. It’s a shocking moment – a reminder of the physical violence that lurks behind their raw, emotional trauma. It’s also a dramatic flourish for the filmmaker, whose editing style tends to be as unobtrusive as his camera. Wiseman hews to the style he pioneered over thirty-five years ago with his first film, “Titicut Follies.” “Domestic Violence” has no music, narration, or explanatory titles and has a running time of more than three hours.
And its final, powerful scene suggests, accurately, that there’s more to come. Wiseman is finishing “Domestic Violence II,” a sequel that examines the experiences of men accused of battery. From his editing room in Paris, the director spoke with Jesse Moss about why he shoots on film, his approach to the editing process and the benefits of non-fiction filmmaking. “Domestic Violence” opens Jan. 30 at New York’s Film Forum.
indieWIRE: What drew you to this subject?
Frederick Wiseman: I’ve been doing a series on institutions, and a shelter is an institution that interested me. Violence is a subject that cuts across a lot of [my] films. Domestic violence was just a natural extension of some of the subjects that I had previously been interested in.
iW: Was is difficult to get access to the shelter?
Wiseman: Actually, I was lucky, because I met someone who knew a lot about Tampa and the way domestic violence issues were handled in Tampa. She and her husband had a luncheon where they invited the chief of police, the sheriff, the chief judge of the district court that dealt with domestic violence cases, the legal aid people, the prosecutors office and the head of the shelter. So I had them all together in one room, and I had an opportunity to meet with them and talk with them and they gave me permission. Then I had to get permission from the clients in the shelter.
iW: What was it about the way these issues are handled in Tampa that interested you?
Wiseman: What struck me about both the shelter and the community in Tampa is that they were organized to try and do something about domestic violence. The reason I met all of these people at the same time is that there is also a coordinating committee with representatives from all these various agencies that meets once a month.
The representatives of the various agencies knew each other, so they had a plan about how to deal with domestic violence in the community. In a sense they did public relations in the community so it became easier for people who were victims to report to the police. And the police were trained not to handle it in the cliché way of many years ago – where they would say, “Oh deary, just forget about it. He really loves you,” but to understand what was going on and try and help the people. It’s also true that Florida has a zero tolerance law, so that if there’s any physical violence between a couple, somebody has to be arrested and at least brought to the arraignment court. If there’s any kind of violence, people are separated by the police or sheriff’s office and taken into custody.
iW: One of the things I found most surprising was the patience of the police officers who are out there trying to resolve these disputes, and their willingness to hear out people’s problems. Was there anything you didn’t expect to find?
Wiseman: It’s the complexities of the relationships between the men and the women you see in the movie that make it difficult for them to separate. I don’t know if complicity is the right word. There’s one sequence in the movie – when a counselor asks a woman how many times she’s left her husband of two years. She answers, “Fifteen.” Which means that she’s already gone back fourteen times.
The difficulty to break the pattern and the need to maintain the relationship for a variety of reasons, as the case may be – love, fear, money, retaliation, and probably twenty others reasons – that was something I was not aware of that struck me quite forcibly.
iW: How long did you shoot?
Wiseman: Eight weeks. There are going to be two movies that come out of it. The second one, which will be called “Domestic Violence 2,” is about the way the cases are treated in the courts, specifically in the arraignment, the injunction and the misdemeanor courts. In the second film you see more of the offenders and also some of therapeutic groups to which offenders are sometimes sentenced in lieu of prison.
iW: Did you have a big crew, a small crew?
Wiseman: It was just three of us.
iW: You shoot on 16mm film. Is this a luxury or a necessity for you?
Wiseman: [laughing] Well, I like the look of 16mm and I much prefer working on film than I do on digital video. And as long as I can raise the money, I’ll continue to work on film. It is very hard to raise the money now. Next time I go out, I’ll have to see. But, to the extent that it is possible for me to work on film, I will. I also like editing on film a lot. And I don’t particularly like, what’s the expression, virtual editing, or digital editing or whatever it is.
iW: You edit on a flatbed?
Wiseman: I edit on a flatbed.
iW: How long did it take you to cut this film?
Wiseman: A year.
iW: You said previously that you think of your films as dramatic movies, not archival material. Did you find some of the structure when you were shooting, or did most of it come in the edit room?
Wiseman: Well, the structure really emerges as a consequence of the editing. I don’t do any formal work on the structure until I’m seven or eight months into the editing. What I do initially is just edit sequences that I like and that I think might make it into the final film. And in the course of doing that, I go through all the material, which in the case of “Domestic Violence” was 110 hours. At the end of seven months or so, when I’ve edited all the sequences that I think are usable into something that is close to the final edited form, over the course of two or three days, I assemble the first structure, which is fairly close to the final film. Certainly in length – it’s within 20 or 30 minutes. And the structure is pretty close to final structure. I’m able to do that quickly at the end of seven or eight months because at that point I know the material, or at least I think I know the material very well. And, while I haven’t been formally thinking about structure, I’ve been informally thinking about it.
I work very, very hard on the structure because I want it to work as a movie – not that I would attempt the definition of a movie – but whatever I happen to think is the dramatic structure for this material. Otherwise, it won’t hold my interest, and it won’t hold the viewer’s interest.
iW: You said something previously which I also wanted to ask you about, because it seemed to sum up your directing style. You said, “I work with a cameraman and I do sound myself. If I have a question, I won’t ask it. I look for other situations that will answer it for me.” Are there ever times when you have to restrain yourself, when you must want to ask a question of a subject?
Wiseman: I never do it. I’ll never prompt anyone for a sequence or ask them to say anything for the camera. Because I like to be able to represent that what you see in the film are events that would have taken place even if there was no film being made. And I think they are. And if there was no film being made, there would not be a place for me to ask a question.
iW: I want to ask you about working with the women in the shelter. It’s remarkably intimate, and you can see clearly the need of these women to tell their stories and have someone listen. Both the counselors and the camera allow them [the women] to tell their stories in sometimes very shocking detail. How did you feel about the intimacy that the shelter creates and then the camera has access to? Were there moments as a filmmaker when you felt the need to pull back?
Wiseman: I gave very full explanations to all the women about what I was doing, how the movie might be used, and where it might be show. Once they agreed, and in fact, all of them agreed, I felt that whatever they said was appropriate to use [in the film].
iW: Have they seen the film?
Wiseman: Well, the shelter has seen the film. Since the film was shot a couple of years ago, I don’t think any of the women who were in the shelter are still there, so I doubt that any of the women have seen it.
iW: What was the shelter staff’s response?
Wiseman: They seemed to like it a lot. They’ve used it for various purposes in Tampa.
iW: Was it ever a problem that you were a male filmmaker?
Wiseman: It was never a problem. I was surprised at that, too. The women were extremely forthcoming and friendly, and I asked some of them why they agreed to be in the film, and they said, unanimously, that if other people knew what they had gone through, it might be helpful to others. Which I thought was extremely generous of them.
iW: When will the film be on television?
Wiseman: The film will probably be on next winter, along with the second one.
iW: What’s your relationship like with PBS?
Wiseman: It has been very good. My relationship is with Channel 13 in New York (WNET), which has presented all my films, beginning, I think, with “Hospital.” I have an extremely good relationship with them, but I have raised the money for my movies independently. A few years ago I did an analysis of the source of funding for all my movies, and I think 18% of the money comes from one branch or another of public television, and the rest of it is from foundations.
iW: They give you all the creative freedom you would want?
Wiseman: Yes. I have total editorial control. Public television doesn’t see it until its finished. Nobody sees it until its finished.
iW: Are you currently editing “Domestic Violence 2?”
Wiseman: I’ve got another month’s work on that. The reason I’m in Paris is that this fall I shot a fiction film, and I’m in the final stages of editing that. I directed a play in Paris last year, and as a result of the play, I was able to get the money in France to do a movie based on the play. It’s based on a chapter of a Russian novel called “Life and Fate,” by Vasily Grossman.
iW: You directed a feature about twenty years ago. What is it like to return to fiction now?
Wiseman: It’s interesting. But documentary is more fun because it is more of a sport. You’re always running around, and you’re not repeating anything.