The documentary opens with early-morning shots of an Everycity – a skyline, tall buildings, cars moving along the freeway. It cuts to a police car turning onto a street in a suburban neighborhood. The camera focuses on a modest bungalow, then jumps to a pair of beefy policemen, who head toward the house. They interview a shirtless and mustachioed man, who answers the officers’ questions indignantly. He is soon handcuffed and helped into the back seat of the police car. One waits for the narrator’s voice to intone about what’s happening, but it never comes – because the film is Domestic Violence, Frederick Wiseman’s latest film.
Widely considered the grandfather of cinéma vérité (and voted one of the most influential doc-makers of all time in RealScreen‘s 2002 Year in Review issue), Wiseman continues to employ the same techniques – and technology – he has used since the start of his long film career in 1967. He directs the cinematographer, who wields a 16mm camera, and handles the sound himself. A third person is on hand to change the film magazines.
In his former life, the Cambridge, U.S.-based doc-maker was a law professor. Reaching the age of 30 made him rethink his career choice, however, and he decided to try his hand at filmmaking. In 1967, Wiseman made the seminal Titicut Follies, and since then the prolific director has made roughly one film a year.
Says Wiseman, ‘I like to think I’ve learned as time has gone on, so I hope the technique is refined and that what I have learned is reflected in the film. But, the basics have been the same from the beginning.’ That includes the 16mm camera, which Wiseman has no intention of throwing over in favor of digital. ‘I like the look of film much better,’ he states simply.
Constancy is a recurring theme in Wiseman’s film life, extending to his long partnership with Thirteen/WNET. PBS’s New York affiliate has presented all of Wiseman’s docs, from the long-banned Titicut Follies to the two-part series Domestic Violence, which aired last month.
Between 1971 and 1981, Wiseman was contracted to produce one film per year for Thirteen/WNET (including such docs as Welfare and Basic Training). ‘The money for that came from the Ford Foundation,’ explains Wiseman. ‘Fred Friendly [a former CBS News producer known for his support of public programming] was there at that time and he gave [WNET] grants that were earmarked for me.’
How does Wiseman’s relationship with PBS work? Like a comfortable marriage, based on trust. Tamara Robinson, vice president of programming for wnet, explains the routine: ‘Fred comes up with a brilliant idea. Most have been related to national institutions – the hospital, police force or even a department store. He talks about how he’s going to approach his film, and we say ‘okay’, and then the fund-raising starts. X number of months later, Fred calls up…to screen a rough-cut.’ From there, she continues, there is an exchange of suggestions that are incorporated into the final cut, which is then presented to PBS.
Each finished film is characterized by elements strongly associated with Wiseman – no narration, no on-screen interviews. Such devices are ‘too didactic for the kind of subjects I’m interested in,’ he explained at last year’s Toronto Documentary Forum in Canada.
The voyeuristic quality of his docs has come to permeate today’s much-derided reality programming. Asked how he feels about shows such as Cops that are sometimes cited as direct offshoots of his style, Wiseman says, ‘I never watch those shows – they don’t really interest me.’
If something does interest Wiseman enough, it ends up being filmed and edited into a doc. Currently, he’s directing a play that will debut in New York, U.S., in the fall, but when that’s done, he will pick up the camera again for his next yet-to-be-determined project.