Theater of Cruelty

A Wiseman for our time

Titicut Follies (1967) / Near Death (1989) / At Berkeley (2013) / Ex Libris (2017)
Regissør: Frederick Wiseman

In February at the Cinematheques: Through 50 years, the merited director Frederick Wiseman has left the institutional community in the seams – to joy, anger and despair.


It is not often that you come out of a cinema and feel both intellectually enriched and emotionally engaged, but one of the Frederick Wiseman films shown at the cinematheques in Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Tromsø 'these days has such an effect. The American filmmaker, documentary filmmaker and theater director Frederick Wiseman (b. 1930) is one of the few surviving film legends we have, and it is the first time a selection of his films has been staged in Norway.

Shock debut. Wiseman debuted as a documentary filmmaker in 1967 with Titicut Follies, a shocking portrait of a public psychiatric clinic for criminals in Massachusetts. Wiseman had spent 29 days in the hospital's closed ward, filming patients systematically subjected to condescension, coercion and bullying with tragic consequences, and then spent a year cutting the material. For the film, he received awards in both Italy and France before the film was recalled and censored by the US authorities. Only 24 years later, after several lawsuits and three years after the clinic was closed, the film finally came out in public. Titicut Follies is today considered a classic in the documentary genre.

If the education system forces students to take out loans, they have already managed their choices for the future: After graduation, they have to get a job and make the most money.

Old methods. The award-winning director makes about one film a year and currently has 44 thought-provoking films about various types of American institutions on his list of qualifications. In 2016 he was awarded an Academy Award, and last year he won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, the latter for Bookplate, a four-hour movie about New York's public library. The New York Times reviewer described the film as "amazing, illuminating and utterly fascinating"; others have reported that they cried for joy when they saw the film, which not only has a great cultural-historical significance, but also represents a truth rarely seen in film.

The style of the documentary often goes under the designation true cinema, or observational film, as the director never uses either interviews, narrative voices, or protagonists in his films. But Wiseman himself dislikes his films being called observant – it sounds too passive. “The way I choose to shoot a scene, the way I pick out the sequences in the dungeon, the way I structure the story through how I put the sequences together in a certain order – all this is highly manipulative. But I try to maintain an ethic of making my films as truthful as possible, as closely as possible to what I feel is the essence of what's going on in the scene.

Wiseman is not only a director, but also his own producer, soundman and, perhaps most importantly, his own clipper. It is not uncommon for Wiseman to end up with 160 hours of raw film, which he then processes on an old, mechanical clipboard. He is skeptical of digital tools; cutting the old way forces him to analyze the scenes before he actually glues them together manually with tape.

Long successes. Frederick Wiseman works with a freedom that is unusual to see in the film industry today. It is the theme and process behind each film that dictates the length of the film ends, such as for example Near Death from 1989. The film follows doctors and nurses at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, who work around the clock to provide care for patients who experience their final hours before death occurs. Despite its six hour playing time, the film had a high viewership both in the US and in France when it was shown on public television. "It couldn't be cut short to understand the complex health situations of the four main characters in the film," says Wiseman in an interview with The Phonex magazine in 1988. "I always try to cut a movie to give it a dramatic structure," he explains further. The scenes are organized in a rhythmic pattern, and the main theme emerges in regular repetitions as in a classical symphony. The sequences are so long that they sometimes seem like short films. The audience is placed in the middle of a set of such sequences, and is thus challenged to reflect on both what we see and hear – and to think about our own reflections.

"Amazing, illuminating and utterly fascinating," wrote one reviewer; others reported that they cried for joy when they saw the movie.

Food for thought. In 1985, Wiseman made the brilliant film Racetrack, which is not about racing in itself, but rather acts as a fascinating time capsule for American society in the 1980s. Here we have an environment where several of the US economic classes are gathered in one place: At the bottom of the rankings we find the Haitian immigrants keeping track of the stables; at the top are the horse owners. Between these layers of society we find the gamblers, who form a class for themselves. The drama of the film arises through the way the different scenes are set up against each other.

In the movie At Berkeley from 2013 we follow a day at this unique elite university. Of the top 10 universities in the United States, only two are public: Berkeley and Madison. These institutions are intellectual sanctuaries and proud of their independence from the holders of Washington. The film opens with a half-hour crisis meeting where the leaders of the administration discuss the disastrous economy. At the center is the tuition fee: If they increase it, students will have to take out student loans. What is wrong with student loans, we think coming from Norway: Who does not have student loans? A political science professor explains it this way: If the system forces students to take out loans, they have already managed their choices for the future: After graduating, they must get a job and make the most money. This contradicts Berkeley's principles of free thought and alternative lifestyles.

Educated – and caught. The attitude is that one should have higher goals than money. "Fighting the intellectual privatization", as one of the professors says. Four very interesting film lessons follow, and it dawns on me how the power structures in my own country push me into decisions I would not have made if I were free. Is it at all possible to have a family in Norway without committing to a mortgage that extends beyond the next 30 years of one's life? And how many mothers have not felt a deep doubt when they deliver their one-year-old child from them to an institution to get back to work as quickly as possible? Is there still opportunity and tolerance for an alternative lifestyle in our society? Is there any free choice in our system at all anymore?

Look at Norway. The world needs filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman, who wakes us up from the habit of sleep and makes us think about our surroundings. We can hope that his films will inspire future documentaries in Norway, too, because wouldn't it have been interesting with a Wiseman film about an old home in Norway, or what about a film about the Planning and Building Agency in Oslo? Would we finally have an understanding of how it is possible that housing developers have become today's new barons at the expense of future generations? Don't we need a movie about why demolition of historic neighborhoods has become acceptable? Or about the Oil Fund – how is the world's largest government fund actually managed? Who dares to take a look at what is actually happening behind the closed doors of power and how the decisions there affect our lives?

A selection of Frederick Wiseman's films are currently at the cinemas in Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Tromsø. Watch program on

Margareta Hruza
Margareta Hruza
Hruza is a Czech / Norwegian filmmaker and regular critic of Ny Tid.

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