Frederick Wiseman

       Frederick Wiseman is the central figure in this account of the making of his films. His hand is everywhere in the processes of pre-production, filmmaking, and distribution. Wiseman has often participated in interviews, and he has made part of his living by visiting college campuses to show his films and tell his story. Wiseman has been fiercely protective of his personal privacy, of his financial success, of his artistic work, and of his public reputation.

       The basic story of his life is one that he has told in talks, interviews, and writings over a period of more than fifty years. Wiseman was born on January 1, 1930. He is the only child of a Boston lawyer and the administrative head of a childcare center. Wiseman attended elite schools—Rivers Country Day School, Boston Latin, then Williams College, which he recalls as marked by antisemitism, and from which he graduated in 1951. Wanting to avoid being drafted into the Army during the Korean War, he enrolled at Yale Law School, though he had no particular interest in the law. Wiseman says that after the first semester, he stopped attending law school classes, instead reading novels in the Yale Library, and managing to get through the exams by arguing the questions with the skills of close reading he had learned in college. At Yale, he met Zipporah Batshaw, a French Canadian and one of the few women students at Yale Law School. They married in 1955 and had two sons. Zipporah Batshaw Wiseman, who had a distinguished career as an attorney and law professor, died in January 2021.

       After Yale, Wiseman served in the Army, at least part of the time as a court reporter. Upon discharge, Wiseman went to Paris to study under the GI Bill. He says he spent most of the time hanging out and watching films.

       Wiseman returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts after the Army, finding part time work at local colleges and eventually serving as treasurer of a consulting company, OSTI (Organization for Social and Technical Innovation), that bid on government social research contracts; he has referred to that work as a “boondoggle.” He has typically said he was as bored with the law and with teaching as he was with law school, so he cast around for something more interesting. In 1960, Wiseman bought the film rights to Warren Miller’s novel, The Cool World (1959), which was released as a film in 1964. Wiseman was the producer; Shirley Clarke directed. Wiseman says that he later formed his own distribution company, Zipporah Films, to control distribution of his films when he realized that the distributor of The Cool World was taking all the profits off the top.

       While teaching law part time, Wiseman sometimes took his students on field trips to local institutions where their clients might wind up. Among those institutions was Massachusetts Correctional Institution, Bridgewater, the state’s prison hospital for the criminally insane. He thought it would make a film, and enlisted John Marshall to run the camera while he recorded sound. They used equipment and techniques that had been developed by the American direct cinema filmmakers, and by the French originators of cinéma vérité—lightweight equipment, small crew, long takes, situational lighting, hand-held camera. After the filming, Wiseman assumed control of the editing process. The resulting film, Titicut Follies (1967), was a scandal and a success, its public exhibition banned by court order in Massachusetts. Wiseman had found his interest.

       The career and the reputation now began to take shape. Wiseman followed with a long series of documentaries about American institutions. The crew and the company stayed very small. The early films typically adopted a tone of critical irony about the institutions under scrutiny—a high school, a hospital, a police department, a welfare office. The critical point of view, never directly argued but often emergent, helped to build Wiseman’s early reputation as having both journalistic and artistic missions.

       Wiseman found early recognition in the literary press and among film critics, and crucially among sources of funding and exhibition. He had early backing from the Ford Foundation for his films, a large grant from a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, and a contract with PBS, which assured wide exposure in public television stations around the country, after which distribution rights returned to Wiseman. The pattern was established. About one film a year. Find an institution, seek permission to film, find funding and at least tentative pre-approval from PBS. Six weeks of filming, followed by up to a year of editing, control of which was entirely in Wiseman’s hands. Exhibition on public television. Then distribution from Zipporah Films—very steep rental and lease terms for classroom use only, no outright print sales. Wiseman became available for lectures at universities, for a considerable fee and stipulating that the school would also rent some of the films to be shown in the days before the talk.

       After experiencing the rare security of two five-year funding contracts with WNET early in his career, Wiseman then had to secure funding film by film; however, he received consistent financial support from The Public Television Service, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and The Independent Television Service, along with occasional funding from the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities and from various private foundations. The four documentaries made in France received additional financial support from various French governmental agencies and from private French companies and individuals.

       This pattern has continued for more than fifty years. There have been several fiction films over the years (Seraphita’s Diary [1982]; The Last Letter [2002]; A Couple [2022]), but the main pattern is set—long-form documentaries about institutions, broadly defined. Some of the technology has changed. The films, formerly black and white, are now in color. Film stock has given way to digital technology. The tone of the films has broadened and in recent years is less combatively ironic and more generous in a conception of the capacity of public and private institutions to do their work.

       Wiseman has for many years been emphatic that his films represent his own point of view, emerging from months of assembling a film of two to four hours or more out of more than a hundred hours of film. His films are enabled by, constrained by, and comprehensible in terms of an inherited tradition and prestige of documentary films and the grammar of both documentary and fiction films. He claims the privileges of journalistic freedom and the freedom from constraint of an independent art creator.

       Wiseman has also suggested, mostly by omission, that he works more or less alone, or otherwise in complete control. This may be very nearly true, but especially in the case of the cinematographers is a more mixed situation. We have also suggested that Wiseman’s films, though perhaps not directly shaped by, are certainly possible only because of talented and experienced cinematographers and a supporting structure of institutions, funding agencies, a willing television network, cooperative subjects, and an appreciative critical and public audience. The existence of these networks makes possible the films, Wiseman’s reputation, and his prosperity. At the same time, of course, Wiseman’s films set in motion waves of economic activity that contribute to the support of critics, television programmers, educators, and others involved in the reception of the films.

       Wiseman’s firm grip on his reputation remains unrelaxed and tightly controlled. The networks of funding, broadcast exhibition, critical support, and audience respect are somehow maintained. Wiseman’s collaborators are still mostly unmentioned in his own accounts of himself as the sole author of the works. The films, astonishingly, seem to keep coming. In recent years, Wiseman appears to be relying increasingly on help in pre-production, production, and post-production.

       The primary story of Wiseman’s work is, of course, in the films themselves, now available on the streaming service Kanopy, available to many holders of public library cards and to students and faculty at many universities and colleges. In 2023 work was completed on the restoration and color grading of the 32 films shot on 16mm and one shot on 35mm. The films are being preserved on 35mm by the Library of Congress National Audio Visual Conservation Center from the original camera negatives in the Zipporah Films Collection.

Suggested Citation: Benson, Thomas W., and Anderson, Carolyn. “Frederick Wiseman.” Making Documentary Film: Frederick Wiseman and His Collaborators, Penn State Libraries Open Publishing, 2024, pp. 105-107.

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