Domestic Violence (2001) is the latest film in the oeuvre of documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, a body of work that is far more than simply a collection of films. Wiseman has spent the last 36 years building, piece by piece, a portrait of American society and its institutions that is truly indispensable. He has assumed the Herculean task of committing an entire nation to film, of systematically peeking into every corner of his society, of moving from one aspect to another, devoting himself to each in turn, and patiently letting his work accumulate and form a whole which could only be achieved over a lifetime.
Wiseman’s films sound dry and academic—High School, Juvenile Court, Hospital, Welfare, Meat, Adjustment and Work, Public Housing. These are films about institutions, and the very word “institution” strikes fear into the hearts of most people. And not without reason—the word suggests bureaucracy, control, conformity, cinder-block rooms painted in sickly colors, paperwork, statistics, and so on. But this is only one side of an institution; the other, taking the welfare system as an example, involves people struggling to make a living, facing poverty, hoping they’ll receive help from that most forbidding, monolithic of institutions, the government. A movie about welfare could be full of statistics or talking heads, but it could just as well be about class, race, poverty, power, anger, fear, despair—in other words, about almost everything. And since this is Wiseman’s angle of approach, his films are anything but dry; in fact, they make most other documentaries, even most other movies, seem parched.
Wiseman tackles one after another of the institutions that make up American society partly because he’s interested in the little world constituted by each. But his overarching goal is to create a mosaic, to show how a particular country operates, and even more sweepingly, to encourage us to think about the very concept of a human society. In other words, what interests Wiseman is precisely the way in which an institution strives to contain the messiness and boundlessness of life, to impose a structure on the chaos underlying all human relations, and the way in which reality bursts these bounds, confounding these attempts to tame it. Wiseman’s earliest films, Titicut Follies (1967) and High School (1968), are grim and single-minded, exposing the way in which two (apparently dissimilar) institutions—an insane asylum and a high school—both utterly fail to treat their “inmates” as individual human beings, transforming them, instead, into something like raw material to be either hidden from sight or shaped and manipulated according to a single mold. This is a singularly despairing vision of the relationship between institutions and individuals, of the sacrifice demanded by the social contract. But Wiseman’s cinema is the stronger for having developed into something more complicated and open-minded, less eager to condemn.
Wiseman’s style has developed throughout his career in some respects, but his basic approach and attitude towards his subjects, began to crystallize as early as Law and Order (1969), his third film, and was fully formed a year later in Hospital (1970). In these films and in all those that follow, Wiseman is not nearly so anxious to pass judgment; the sensitivity he shows towards the victims, so to speak, of these institutions is extended as well to the people working within them. What emerges most powerfully from these films is a sense of the tension between the oppressive, de-humanizing force of the institutions themselves and the often sincere, committed, and sometimes even heroic efforts of the cops, doctors, counselors, judges, scientists, welfare officials, and social workers that people them. There are good guys and bad guys, relatively speaking, in Wiseman’s films—victims and aggressors, heroes and villains, selfless social workers and bigoted cowards. But they’re all human, and more often than not our feelings towards them are remarkably sympathetic.
Even when the people on-screen are trying to do right, though, they seem to be swimming against the current – their efforts seem largely to be in vain. Juvenile Court (1973) is one of Wiseman’s masterpieces, and it exemplifies the social contradictions that he captures. In one unforgettable scene a woman who works at the court, meeting with a young girl who is apparently a prostitute, launches into an impassioned, no-bullshit speech about self-respect and building an independent identity, and we can practically see a whole new world of possibility and self-confidence opening up before this damaged, unhappy child. It’s like the opposite of a snuff-film: a moment in which we see a human being come to life, so to speak, on-screen, and it’s deeply moving. The rest of the film is much more complicated though. Although the judge presiding over most of the cases appears to truly care about the kids who come before him, does that make it any less disturbing to watch him and the lawyers bargain over a child’s fate, to perceive how much unchecked power they have over the kids’ lives? It chills the blood just to observe this system, this machine for processing invariably damaged and fragile children who are not behaving correctly. Wiseman, in this and all his films, is looking deep into the behavior of humans when they group together, and weighing both the benefits and the costs.
Wiseman’s approach to documentary filmmaking – his strict reliance on fly-on-the-wall footage, without interviews, narration, or, for that matter, any acknowledgment of the camera by the participants – results in films that resemble fiction more than traditional documentary, precisely because they are primarily dramatic rather than journalistic. Wiseman doesn’t report on a subject, he immerses us in it. It’s almost as if this method is his way of purging his scenes of the constructed, contrived quality that characterize even the most brilliant of fictional scenes, of capturing the messiness, banality, and formlessness of people’s lives. The greater generosity of Wiseman’s films after High School, their tendency to be less judgmental, is reflected in the way he edits together his footage. Compared to the intrusively edited and fragmented Titicut Follies and High School, movies like Juvenile Court and Welfare (1975) are remarkably patient, open, rhythmically varied films, mixing brief, impressionistic glimpses of activity with much longer chunks of (apparent) real-time. Asked by an interviewer why he refuses to use narration in his films, Wiseman replied, “Because I don’t like to be told what to think. When this technique works, it works because it places the viewer in the middle of the event. It asks the viewer to think through their own relationship to what they’re seeing and hearing” (1). Editing, however, and the process of choosing which footage the audience will see, is a kind of narration as well, one that Wiseman has been more and more loathe to resort to.
Of course the film only exists as a whole insofar as Wiseman has shaped it through editing. To borrow the metaphor Nathaniel Dorsky used at the 2001 New York Film Festival to describe his own films, Wiseman prefers the hunter/gatherer, rather than the agricultural, method of filmmaking, accumulating footage freely and instinctively during shooting and then selecting and shaping from this mass of raw material. And, in fact, Wiseman’s greatest achievements may be his mid-period films—especially Hospital, Juvenile Court, and Welfare—those in which he achieves a perfect balance between fidelity to his experience and creation of an exhilaratingly perfect cinematic structure. His later works—beginning with Blind, Deaf, Adjustment and Work, and Multi-Handicapped (1986), a four-part film about a school and training facility for handicapped people—are even longer (Near Death  is more than six hours long) and even more full of radically extended scenes. These movies are perhaps less interesting cinematically than the earlier masterpieces, less rhythmically varied and satisfyingly shaped. But this is a sacrifice Wiseman makes for the benefit of truthfulness towards his subjects.
Deaf, for instance, is anchored by a meeting between a principal, a counselor, a troubled deaf child, and his mother that lasts more than half an hour. This scene is emblematic of Wiseman’s late style. No less than in the earlier films, Wiseman is selecting and shaping what we see—he points out that though a scene like this one seems like it’s in real time, “more often than not it’s cut to appear as real time, even though it may be a compression from an hour and a half to five minutes” (2). But increasingly, Wiseman prefers to edit with a view to allowing the audience to observe whole conversations, whole activities, rather than directing its attention to specific details or moments; his editing strives to efface itself, to create the illusion, at least for long stretches at a time, of shapelessness.
But shape or no shape, this scene contains far more drama, emotion and ambiguity than an average year’s worth of American fiction filmmaking. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid picture of the emotional minefield that is childhood (although Juvenile Court is basically a full-length version of this scene) or a clearer rejection of the myth that adults know best. None of these adults are monsters—the principal and the counselor have nothing but good intentions and appear to have the sensitivity and the training to know how to talk to the child, and his mother loves him and needs him to love her. But when the mother, frustrated by her son’s love for the man who has abandoned them both, cries out, “Your father doesn’t love you,” her thoughtlessness is monstrous. Adults may know better, but most still don’t know very well, and if experience can increase one’s wisdom it can just as easily increase one’s ignorance. There’s something comic and satisfying about the scene because the kid seems much more aware of this, much wiser in a way, than the adults. He’s painfully hurt and confused, but his toughness, resourcefulness, and sheer charm are heartening. But his wisdom doesn’t make things any easier for him; in fact, it may cause him to withdraw further within himself. There’s a suggestion of optimism at the end of the scene as the kid begins to smile and appears to have begun to open up. But after his mother’s outburst—an excruciating moment in which we can almost see the boy’s heart breaking—it would be naïve to imagine that everything is alright, and it’s hard not to suspect that he’s acting for them, that his shrewdness has convinced him that it’s safer to hide his feelings than to show them.
In this scene, and in others like it, Wiseman’s search is not for a shape that is merely aesthetically pleasing, but for one that reflects his own experience, that focuses our attention on what is interesting and significant without misrepresenting the rhythm and open-endedness of the meeting. There may be no other filmmaker who has managed to put human conversation and interaction on film with such fidelity, who has had the patience to respect the way we speak to each other, the repetition, formlessness and inarticulateness. And the more of his films you see, the clearer it becomes that his devotion to portraying natural and extended conversation is more than just an aspect of realism, it’s an integral part of his project, his portrait of the workings of a society. Watching film after film, you become acutely aware of something very obvious but easily overlooked: that what it all comes down to, what all conflicts, resolutions, laws, political races, governmental debates and decision-making are based on, is talk. Wiseman forces us to concentrate on conversations that are sometimes far from compelling in themselves (business and administrative meetings, negotiations, scientific discussions) and which we may not even fully understand, because he wants to show us the details, the nitty-gritty, the everyday interactions, discussions and activities, that taken all together make up a nation and a society and a culture.
At the same time, some of the most unforgettable passages in Wiseman’s films are those which are completely free of dialogue, purely visual passages in which we see, for instance, the process by which an animal is slaughtered, divided into its separate parts, and packaged (Meat, 1976), or, in Belfast, Maine (1999), the sequence of fisherman catching lobsters or the twin sequences in which we get an inside look at the workings of first a potato and then a tuna packing factory. Just as most filmmakers don’t have enough confidence in their viewers to believe that half-an-hour of people conversing could possibly hold their attention, they’re equally timid when it comes to long periods without dialogue. It’s a real shame, not only because there’s something inherently hypnotic about extended scenes without dialogue—after all, we spend much of our lives in silence, a fact that movies are generally loathe to acknowledge—but because it means denying us a substantive look at a crucial part of so many people’s experience, at the work they spend most of their time doing. These scenes in Meat and Belfast, Maine are fascinating because they satisfy our desire to see behind the scenes but there’s also a special charge to them, a feeling close to relief that Wiseman is illuminating corners of our world that most movies systematically ignore, gloss over, or simplify. This is Wiseman’s project—an almost missionary devotion to correcting so much of our cinema’s misrepresentation of American life.
The freer and more inclusive Wiseman’s style becomes, the more it seems that those who criticize him, for not calling enough attention either to the power of his own selection or to the effect his crew’s presence has on what they film, are underestimating the intelligence and awareness of both Wiseman and his audience. Judging by Wiseman’s own comments, the second objection is the fairer one. Again and again Wiseman has acknowledged the active, manipulative role he plays when he edits his films, referring to them as “reality-fictions.” When asked about the influence his own presence has, though, he tends to get defensive: “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” (3). It’s true that Wiseman seems to have an almost miraculous gift for inspiring trust and for capturing people at their most natural, unguarded, and spontaneous. He claims that he turns the camera off whenever he feels that people are performing for the camera, and it’s clearly true. But his denial is still puzzling, to say the least. No one acts completely naturally with a camera in their face, and there’s no question that the authorities seen at work in movies like High School, Law and Order, Juvenile Court, Welfare, and Public Housing (1997), are on their best behavior.
Criticism of Wiseman’s comments is fair, but it’s unjustified when directed towards the films themselves because whatever Wiseman might say in interviews, he is clearly intelligent enough to know that his presence is a factor; and, more to the point, we in the audience are aware of it. Since Wiseman regards each of his films as “a report on what I’ve learned as a consequence of making the film” (4), Wiseman’s job is simply to select only that footage which he believes to be truthful, based on his own observation of each institution. It’s up to the audience to trust (or not) that he has done so, to watch the film with a degree of skepticism. Wiseman’s decision not to acknowledge his interference openly has nothing to do with dishonesty or deceitfulness – it’s a sign of his faith in his audience’s intelligence. His presence surely effected what he observed, but how could it have been otherwise? This would be equally the case if we were there ourselves. And since we are intelligent enough to recognize all this, the effect of the crew’s presence is simply something else that’s there for us to observe. Certain kinds of behavior actually become more, not less revealing, with this in mind. When a cop in Law and Order uses a brutal choke-hold on a harmless, half-naked prostitute, it’s striking not only that he’s doing it but that he’s doing it knowing that he’s being filmed—he’s not even aware that it might reflect badly on him. Many of the people in Wiseman’s films may be acting differently than they would if they were alone, but how they choose to act in the presence of the camera is in itself revealing.
Having shifted from an openly critical stance in his earliest films to a more observational approach, Wiseman has recently begun to turn his attention to more progressive institutions—the school and training center in the four films from 1986, a non-traditional inner-city high school in High School 2 (1994), a relatively successful low-income housing project in Public Housing, and now, in Domestic Violence (2001), a shelter for abused men and women and their children. The first part of what will eventually be a two-part film, the second part focusing on the process of prosecuting the abusers, Domestic Violence focuses on Tampa’s The Spring, the largest domestic violence shelter of its kind in the U.S., where we see several women checking themselves in, attending group therapy meetings, and talking informally to each other, as well as the classes and activities offered to their children. It’s a difficult, often wrenching film, full of damaged souls, but it’s also one of Wiseman’s most hopeful, because these damaged souls have sought (and found) shelter and are in the process of acknowledging and understanding their plight for the first time.
As a portrait of an institution, Domestic Violence almost reverses the dynamic of movies like Titicut Follies or High School. The institutions in these films were revealed as oppressive forces, bending human diversity and personality into socially acceptable shapes. The purpose of The Spring is very nearly the opposite—not to impose social norms but to offer shelter from them. The Spring is designed to correct society’s evils, specifically, to combat one of the most deep-seated and pervasive of institutions, male supremacy and violence (a Spring staff-member, speaking to a group of visiting elderly women, remarks that, “the FBI, which is not a feminist organization, says that one in two women will be abused”). Where the emotion that spills over in many of the other films does so in spite of each institution, The Spring is intended to be a place precisely for emotional release, a place where women whose experience of society’s institutions (family, marriage) has been one of ongoing subjugation, persecution and despair are finally allowed to acknowledge and express their feelings and thoughts. These are women who have been psychologically tortured (as often as not by their parents long before they ever entered relationships), denied friends, financial resources, opinions, and who have been persecuted even in their sleep (when, during one group session, the counselor asks if any of them have been beaten in their sleep, the collective answer is a resounding yes). Coming from a lifetime of this experience, even the cinderblock architecture, which elsewhere suggests imprisonment and conformity, here seems like a reassuring bulwark against the violence and persecution of the outside world.
Domestic Violence is largely a record of women tasting their first freedom from a society that seems designed to enslave them, and as such it’s a profoundly moving experience—at times it seems like a compendium of scenes like the one between the woman and the prostitute in Juvenile Court. But these are mature women, and they don’t need to be coaxed back to life—given their first opportunity to express themselves, they do so with a vengeance. Wiseman’s late method, his patience and reluctance to condense his scenes more than necessary, has never seemed so justified; Domestic Violence is a masterpiece thanks as much to these women as to Wiseman himself. They have been brutally enslaved and manipulated, many of them for decades, but in this safe environment everything that was repressed and buried inside comes pouring out, in waves the film can barely contain, and the women’s essential wholeness, their intactness, is breathtaking, almost miraculous. The heart of the film is in the extended scenes of group therapy sessions where, one after another, the women unburden themselves with an honesty, eloquence, and strength that almost completely belie their histories. Perhaps what comes across most vividly in Domestic Violence is to what extent strength and weakness can co-exist within one person. It’s hard to believe that the woman who talks about splitting her husband’s head open with a frying pan after catching him trying to molest their daughter could possibly find herself trapped in an abusive relationship, but this is a mystery evoked over and over in the film. The strength of these women makes the phenomenon they describe all the more appalling.
The brilliance of Wiseman’s strategy here is that he devotes so much time to this process of reawakening, without ever letting us forget the awful fact underlying even the most optimistic of moments, that these women are the tip of the iceberg, the few saved among a sea of women caught in a cycle of violence. Domestic Violence opens with several minutes of footage shot in the company of Tampa police officers responding to domestic violence calls, establishing, with almost unbearable force, the world from which the women we’ll come to know are escaping, before retreating, with them, into the relative calm and safety of The Spring. Three hours later, after countless horrible stories and bruised bodies, but also after profound healing and confidence-building, we emerge, ever so briefly, back into the outside world, where Wiseman takes us into one last home, in which a very drunk man and a very exhausted, sick woman are arguing. Wiseman’s intention with this final scene is not simply to give us a last glimpse of a violent man—it’s actually the man who has called the police, to have his wife evicted, seemingly because he knows that if she stays, she’s going to get beaten. What’s especially disturbing (and frustrating) about this final scene is the woman’s refusal to leave, despite the cops’ efforts to persuade her. Wiseman has to end with this scene because for the vast majority of women who have experienced domestic violence, abuse is not a thing of the past, a personal history to come to terms with—it’s their reality. The existence of The Spring is cause for hope, but taking shelter is a step many, many women can’t bring themselves to take—a leap, in their eyes, not from an abyss but into one.
This multi-faceted perspective is typical of Wiseman. It’s difficult to think of a more fair-minded, clear-eyed filmmaker, or one whose work incorporates such a broad range of human experience. It’s not simply a question of revealing oppression or injustice, but of creating a balanced, complete portrait of a nation as a whole, in all its variety and complexity. Explaining those films focusing on an upper-class milieu, like The Store (1983) and Aspen (1991), Wiseman has explained, “We’re back to the question again of what’s a legitimate subject for a documentary, and some people thinking the only subject is to show poor people and how they are victims. But I’m interested in showing all classes of American life, how rich people live as well as poor people…My goal is to make as many films as possible about different aspects of American life” (5). Wiseman is a documentary filmmaker in the purest sense of the term—his goal is not to illustrate, persuade, or speculate, but simply to document, to explore, to question and to contemplate.
- Richard Covington, Salon, Aug 26 1996, http://www.salon.com/weekly/interview960826.html
- Jim McKay, Indiewire, December 18, 1997, http://www.indiewire.com/film/interviews/int_Wiseman_Frdrk_971218_1.html
- Jesse Moss, Indiewire, January 29 2002, http://www.indiewire.com/film/interviews/int_Wiseman_Fredrik_020129.html
- Richard Covington, Salon, August 26 1996, http://www.salon.com/weekly/interview960826.html
- Gerald Peary, Boston Phoenix, March 1998, http://www.geraldpeary.com/interviews/wxyz/wiseman.html