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8 Smart Things Documentary Legend Frederick Wiseman Shared About His Career

8 Smart Things Documentary Legend Frederick Wiseman Shared About His Career

Frederick Wiseman

“You are the greatest master of the art of the documentary,” the moderator of Zurich Film Festival’s first masterclass kept clamoring to Frederick Wiseman, as he persistently referred to a recent Sight & Sound directors poll. The assertion is perhaps a little bold, but there is certainly something intimidating about the enormousness of Wiseman’s filmography. The hyper-prolific octogenarian’s claim to fame, of course, involves an unwavering commitment the observational method, and the slow, but resolute, covering of every institution you can think of.

READ MORE: Review: Frederick Wiseman’s Sprawling ‘At Berkeley’ Is Educational, But Whose Side Is He On?

As well as hosting a screening of his recent “National Gallery,” the festival invited Wiseman to give an hour-long talk as part of their series of masterclasses (which, this year, include Fatih Akin, Susanne Bier, Hans Zimmer and Ulrich Seidl). Here are the eight things we learned during the discussion, including silly french nomenclature, how to make a living off documentaries and his opinion on the digital vs. film debate.
Wiseman didn’t care much for law school.
“My little joke about law school is that I was physically present. There was a wonderful university library, and they had very comfortable chairs, and every novel or poem you’d ever want to read on the open shelf. So really spent three years in law school sitting in the library. That being said, I did get a very good education… in English and American literature.”
Why Wiseman picks institutions as his subjects.

“The value of picking institutions is that it serves the same function as the net, or the lines, of a tennis court, in the sense that it provides boundaries. So whatever happens in this school, or the buildings, or this limited geographical area, is fit for inclusion in the film, and everything that takes place outside of it is excluded. I’m interested in having a look at the way institutions are run, the rules that they’re run by, the relationship between the people who provide services and the people who are offered services.’
Wiseman is not a fan of the “cinema is the truth” discussion.
“What a boring discussion. Boring AND pretentious. The notion that cinema is the truth, or that anything is the truth is preposterous. I never get involved in those discussions. Everything is subjective and everything represents a choice. To use the word “truth” is incredibly pretentious. It’s such a typically french term: cinema vérité. I think academics are the ones who create categories and all these horrible terms… direct cinema, cinema-vérité, observational cinema, fly on the wall… which is a particularly offensive one.”
Wiseman doesn’t make a living just by making films.

“I have no idea who sees my films. I hope they’re seen by a wide variety of people, god forbid only by intellectuals and film scholars. That being said, they do have a small audience. I make a living out of a combination of things. I try to make close to one film a year; I own those films so if they have any residual value, I get it; and I give talks at universities, American ones in particular, because you get paid very well for talking about your movies. You make more from talking about them than actually making them. It’s really a shame you have to make them in order to talk about them. Though, of course, that’s not true of film critics.”
Why Wiseman keeps making documentaries.
“I have the opportunity to get out in the world, get some sense of what’s going on. I have the opportunity to travel and to find myself in a lot of interesting situations. I guess the premise was that in ordinary experience there are things that are as funny or sad, or tragic as the great literature, and it’s not that as a filmmaker create them, but if you’re lucky enough to be in these situations and recognizing them for what they have, then you have an opportunity to make dramatic narrative movies out of ordinary experience.
“It’s an adolescent dream come true. You get to ride in police cars, you get to ride in tanks, you get to spend time with models or ballet dancers, actors. It’s great fun. I’m not minimizing the work, but it’s an enormous amount of work. It’s an opportunity to participate and engage and observe in what’s going on in the world.”
Wiseman thinks the film vs. digital debate is overblown.

“There’s a lot of nonsense about the change in the creative process. In my experience it doesn’t change anything. You have to make choices. Whether you’re making choices sitting at a typewriter, or at a keyboard, or making choices at a splicer or an editing suite, the need to make choices is exactly the same. You don’t have any more of those choices because of digital. For me, however, there’s been one disadvantage [to the shift to digital] in that I’ve had to train myself not to make choices too quickly. When I edit on a flatbed, built into the system was time to think, because you had to go to the wall, find the roll of film, turn it up on the machine, run it down to the place you were looking for. All that wasn’t wasted time, because you’d be thinking during that time, and you were automatically required to look at sequences other than the one you were looking for, because that sequences would never be the first on the roll of film. So you had to find it, and you were simultaneously reviewing the sequences that preceded it.”
Wiseman’s not actually averse to ‘talking head’ documentaries.

“There are some great films made using interviews. Marcel Ophuls, for example. He made “The Sorrow And The Pity” and “Hotel Terminus.” He made a lot of great movies, but those are the two particularly great ones. I’m a great admirer of his and those movies are all interviews. I don’t think the way I work is the only valid way to operate. I just happen to like to work this way, because I like to bring the experience that I’ve had being at the place for several weeks to the people who haven’t had that experience. When the film works, it works because you feel you’re at the center of the events. I also have a horror of didacticism, I don’t like to be told what to think. Many of the events in these films are complicated and ambiguous, and I like the idea of films being complicated and ambiguous, because the books that I like are that way. My approach, in that sense, is more novelistic.”
Wiseman has a theory on why his films have begun to crop up in film festivals more frequently.

“It’s nice that my films are starting to get shown in festivals, but it might be a function of the fact that fiction films are so bad.”

READ MORE: Watch: Trailer For Frederick Wiseman’s Art Documentary ‘National Gallery’

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