Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman

Wiseman discussing his work at the Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, on June 13th, 2005
Born (1930-01-01) January 1, 1930
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Alma mater Williams College
Yale University
Occupation Director, producer
Spouse(s) Zipporah Batshaw (m. 1955; 2 children)

Frederick Wiseman (born January 1, 1930) is an American filmmaker, documentarian, and theatrical director.[1]


Wiseman was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Gertrude Leah (née Kotzen) and Jacob Leo Wiseman.[2] He gained a Bachelor of Arts from Williams College in 1951 and a Bachelor of Laws from Yale Law School in 1954. He spent 1954 to 1956 serving in the U.S. Military. Wiseman spent a few years in Paris before coming back and started teaching law at Boston University's Institute of Law and Medicine. He then started documentary filmmaking, and has won numerous film awards, as well as Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships.[3] [4]

In 2003, Wiseman was awarded the Dan David Prize for his outstanding films, which make us reckon with our emotions and the cost to society of marginalizing those who cannot speak for themselves.[5] In 2006, Wiseman received the George Polk Career Award, given annually by Long Island University to honor contributions to journalistic integrity and investigative reporting.

The first feature-length film that Wiseman produced was The Cool World in 1963. He next produced and directed Titicut Follies (1967). He has both produced and directed all of his films since. They chiefly are studies of social institutions: for example, hospital, high school, police department. All have been aired on PBS, one of his primary funders.

The style of Wiseman's films is often referred to as the observational mode, which has its roots in direct cinema. However, Wiseman dislikes the term:

What I try to do is edit the films so that they will have a dramatic structure, that is why I object to some extent to the term observational cinema or cinéma vérité, because observational cinema to me at least connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another and that is not true. At least that is not true for me and cinema verité is just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I'm concerned.[4]

In spring 2012 Wiseman took actively part in the three month exposition of Whitney Biennial.[6]

In 2014 he was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 71st Venice International Film Festival.[7] In 2016, he was a recipient of an Academy Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


Wiseman's films are, in his view, an elaboration of a personal experience and not an ideologically objective portrait of his subjects.

In many interviews, Wiseman has emphasized that his films are not and cannot be unbiased. In spite of the inescapable bias that is introduced in the process of "making a movie", he still feels he has certain ethical obligations regarding how he portrays the events in his films:

[My films are] based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions... The editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative... What you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it... all of those things... represent subjective choices that you have to make... In [Belfast, Maine] I had 110 hours of material ... I only used 4 hours – near nothing. The compression within a sequence represents choice and then the way the sequences are arranged in relationship to the other represents choice.[4]
All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical ... aspect of it is that you have to ... try to make [a film that] is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on. ... My view is that these films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed but fair. I think what I do is make movies that are not accurate in any objective sense, but accurate in the sense that I think they're a fair account of the experience I've had in making the movie.[8]
I think I have an obligation, to the people who have consented to be in the film, ... to cut it so that it fairly represents what I felt was going on at the time in the original event.[9]

Process and style

Wiseman works only four to six weeks in the institutions he portrays, with almost no preparation. He spends the bulk of the production period editing the material, trying to find a rhythm to make a “movie.”

Present in every Wiseman film is a dramatic structure. Not necessarily a narrative arc per se – his films rarely have what could be considered a distinct climax and conclusion; any suspense there may be is at a per-scene, human experience level and not constructed from carefully placed plot points; there are no consistent human characters with whom the viewer is expected to identify. Nevertheless, Wiseman feels that drama is a crucial element for his films to "work as movies" (Poppy). The "rhythm and structure" (Wiseman) of Wiseman's films pull the viewer into the position and perspective of the subject (human or otherwise). The viewer feels the dramatic tension of the situations portrayed in the films, as various environmental forces create complicated situations and conflicting values for the subject.

Wiseman openly admits to manipulating his source material to create dramatic structure, and indeed insists that it is necessary to "make a movie.":

I'm trying to make a movie. A movie has to have dramatic sequence and structure. I don't have a very precise definition about what constitutes drama but I'm gambling that I'm going to get dramatic episodes. Otherwise, it becomes Empire. ... I am looking for drama, though I'm not necessarily looking for people beating each other up, shooting each other. There's a lot of drama in ordinary experiences. In Public Housing, there was drama in that old man being evicted from his apartment by the police. There was a lot of drama in that old woman at her kitchen table peeling a cabbage.[10]

A very distinctive aspect of Wiseman's style is the complete lack of expository (narration), interactive (interviews), or reflexive (revealing to the viewer some part of the filmmaking process) elements. Regarding the lack of reflexive elements, Wiseman has stated that he does not "feel any need to document [his] experience" and feels that such elements in films are vain.[11]

In the process of producing a film, Wiseman will often acquire more than 100 hours of raw footage. His ability to create a feature-length film that is engaging and interesting, without the use of any voiceover, title cards, or motion graphics, while still being "fair", is the reason why Wiseman is seen as a true master of documentary film.

This great glop of material which represents the externally recorded memory of my experience of making the film is of necessity incomplete. The memories not preserved on film float somewhat in my mind as fragments available for recall, unavailable for inclusion but of great importance in the mining and shifting process known as editing. This editorial process ... is sometimes deductive, sometimes associational, sometimes non-logical and sometimes a failure... The crucial element for me is to try and think through my own relationship to the material by whatever combination of means is compatible. This involves a need to conduct a four-way conversation between myself, the sequence being worked on, my memory, and general values and experience.


  • The Cool World (1963) (producer only)
  • Titicut Follies (1967)
  • High School (1968)
  • Law and Order (1969)
  • Hospital (1970)
  • I Miss Sonia Henie (1971)
  • Basic Training (1971)
  • Essene (1972)
  • Juvenile Court (1973)
  • Primate (1974)
  • Welfare (1975)
  • Meat (1976)
  • Canal Zone (1977)
  • Sinai Field Mission (1978)
  • Manoeuvre (1979)
  • Seraphita's Diary (1980)
  • Model (1980)
  • The Store (1983)
  • Racetrack (1985)
  • Multi-Handicapped (1986)
  • Deaf (1986)
  • Adjustment and Work (1986)
  • Missile (1987)
  • Blind (1987)
  • Near Death (1989)
  • Central Park (1989)
  • Aspen (1991)
  • Zoo (1993)
  • High School II (1994)
  • Ballet (1995)
  • La Comédie-Française ou l'Amour joué (1996)
  • Public Housing (1997)
  • Belfast, Maine (1999)
  • Domestic Violence (2001)
  • La dernière lettre / The Last Letter (2002) - filmed version of his directed stage play at Comédie-Française
  • Domestic Violence 2 (2002)
  • The Garden (2005)
  • State Legislature (2006)
  • La Danse (2009) – about the Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris
  • Boxing Gym (2010)
  • Crazy Horse (2011) - about the Crazy Horse nightclub in Paris
  • At Berkeley (2013)
  • National Gallery (2014)
  • In Jackson Heights (2015)

Theatrical work

In addition to his better known film work, Wiseman has also directed and been involved in theater, in the US and France.[12]


  1. Philippe Pilard (August 26, 2012). "Frederick Wiseman, Chronicler of the Western World". La Sept/Arte.
  2. Frederick Wiseman Biography (1930-). Retrieved on 2014-05-22.
  3. Frederick Wiseman (biography), The New York Times, December 20, 2014
  4. 1 2 3 Aftab and Weltz, Interview with Frederick Wiseman
  5. "Laureates 2003". Tel Aviv University. Retrieved 4 November 2015.
  6. Roberta Smith (March 1, 2012). "A Survey of a Different Color 2012 Whitney Biennial". NY Times. Retrieved March 5, 2012.
  7. "Thelma Schoonmaker and Frederick Wiseman Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement". labiennale. Retrieved 7 September 2014.
  8. Spotnitz, Frank (May 1991). "Dialogue on film". American Film. 16 (5): 16–21.
  9. Poppy, Nick (2002-01-30). "Frederick Wiseman". Retrieved 2007-11-12.
  10. Peary, Gerald (March 1998). "Frederick Wiseman". Retrieved 2007-11-12.
  11. Lucia, Cynthia (October 1994). "Revisiting High School – An interview with Frederick Wiseman". Cinéaste. 20 (4): 5–11.
  12. "News & Events". Retrieved August 26, 2012.
  13. Philippe Pilard. "Frederick Wiseman, Chronicler of the Western World". La Sept/Arte. Retrieved August 26, 2012.


Further reading

External links

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