Well before there were “true crime” shows on every cable channel, MTV cameras capturing college kids drinking and smooching, or even before there was Ken Burns telling grand stories of American history, there was Frederick Wiseman and his fly-on-the-wall presence.

Wiseman’s first documentary film, “Titicut Follies” in 1967, was banned from display for years because of its frank and shocking look at how patients at a Massachusetts prison hospital for the “criminally insane” were treated. He’s gone on to make some 40 films, many taking a long look at community and cultural institutions, including “High School” in 1968, “Hospital” in 1969, “State Legislature” in 2006 and the neighborhood study “In Jackson Heights” in 2015. For a close-up look at an American small town, he made “Belfast, Maine” in 1999, choosing the port town because he has summered nearby in Northport since 1974.

Wiseman received an honorary Academy Award in 2016, lauded in the official Academy press release as a “pioneer” in the field of documentary film. He stands out among other filmmakers, and in the eyes of viewers, for completely omitting narration, expert “talking heads” and other explanatory devices so common in documentaries. Film critics have praised this focus on observation over explanation, along with his knack for a kind of visual artistry rare among documentarians. His style and his body of work focusing on social institutions have influenced generations of younger filmmakers.

This year, the 50th anniversary of his first film, Wiseman is being celebrated at movie houses, museums and other venues around the country. There’s a retrospective of all of his films at The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston through June 4. But because he filmed so much of the minutia of daily life before anyone else did, or audiences clamored for it, Wiseman has also been called the possible father of reality television.

“I didn’t know whether to kill them or commit suicide, because I don’t want to be held responsible for that kind of junk,” said Wiseman, 87, sitting in his office and studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I don’t watch any of that stuff, but I don’t think that’s what I do. I never bring together strangers, or anybody. I just follow events as they occur and as I find them.”

Wiseman is a former lawyer whose passion for movies was ignited as a child, mostly by comedies, including those by the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and writer-director Preston Sturges. He says he’ll keep making films partly because it’s in his blood and partly because “I’m old now and I want to keep busy, to keep my mind off grim things.” In December he finished a film on the New York Public Library system, “Ex Libris,” which is due out later this year. Many of his films, including “In Jackson Heights,” “National Gallery” from 2014, and “Belfast, Maine” were shown nationally on PBS TV stations. “Titicut Follies” was recently made into a ballet, with Wiseman’s help, and it was performed in New York City earlier this year.

“Few filmmakers have such a breadth of work, covering so much of our changing landscapes, politically and culturally. If you wanted to send just one body of (film) work to another planet, for other civilizations to study, Fred would have to be on the top of that list,” said Ben Fowlie, executive director of the Camden-based Points North Institute, a documentary film organization that runs the annual Camden International Film Festival. “His films are long, but he has a way of suspending time so that not once do you say, ‘Get to the point,’ because the point is you’re there in the moment and you’re seeing what’s happening through his eyes.”

Fowlie, though not a filmmaker himself, studied documentary filmmaking in college and calls Wiseman one of his biggest inspirations.

A scene from Frederick Wiseman’s 1995 documentary film “Ballet.” Photo courtesy of Zipporah Films


Though Wiseman doesn’t force subjects together or manipulate action, he’s also quick to point out that his documentaries are “completely subjective.” He says his choice of what to film, how to edit scenes and where to place scenes certainly show his point of view. But what he films, what he tries to capture, is “people’s experiences as they happened, without any intervention.” And he eschews narrators and talking head experts because, as a viewer, he says, “I don’t like to be told what to think.”

Wiseman’s films are usually long, sometimes three hours or more. Unlike so many documentary makers, he lets action tell the story. In “Belfast, Maine” there’s an 11-minute scene in the now-closed Stinson sardine cannery showing dozens of workers standing over a series of conveyor belts with thousands of sardines and thousands of cans, like a river, flowing toward them. Silently, wearing aprons and hair nets, they quickly snip the sardines into pieces with scissors and pack them for shipping.

“There are 275 cuts in that sequence, and it took me five weeks to edit. It’s a good example of what you can try and do with editing. If I had wanted to simply establish there was a sardine factory in Belfast, I could have had a wide shot on the factory floor, a wide shot of the workers, and an exterior of the building,” said Wiseman, who filmed in Belfast in the fall of 1997. “But what I was trying to do was give some sense of what it’s like to work there, to be on that assembly line for eight hours day for maybe 20 years.”

Wiseman says he simply picks topics that interest him for his films. Besides everyday institutions like libraries, hospitals or small towns, he’s also done films on dance (“La Danse” and “Ballet”), art (“National Gallery”) and sports (“Boxing Gym” and “Racetrack”).

A scene from Frederick Wiseman’s 2014 documentary film “National Gallery.” Photo courtesy of Zipporah Films

Wiseman said he picked Belfast because it was an interesting, and beautiful, small town he was familiar with. But in all of his 40 films, it remains the only one set in or very near a place he’s lived. His year-round home is in Cambridge, a five-minute walk from his office and film studio, but he’s never set a film in that area.

Mike Hurley, a Belfast City Council member who co-owns the Colonial Theatre cinema, says he was critical of Wiseman’s film when it first came out. He thought the film focused too much on the grittier aspects of the town, showing a coyote being shot or nits being pulled out of people’s hair. But watching it years later, he finds the film to be “softer,” with scenes of people at a dry cleaner or a local bakery representing more of the “daily life” of the town than Hurley remembered.

“I still note a lack of normalcy, but he so thoroughly documented so much of the town,” said Hurley. “Before I had seen the film, I thought Fred was merely a fly on the wall. But there’s so much work that goes into gathering the material and deciding how to use it.”

Hurley plans to mark the 20 years since Wiseman filmed in Belfast by showing “Belfast, Maine” at the Colonial in August. Wiseman will take questions following a screening of the film on Aug. 1, but exact times and other details have not yet been firmed up.

While shooting “Belfast, Maine,” Wiseman scoured local newspapers for upcoming events and had breakfast weekly with two friends who were writing a history of the town. Once he started filming around town, word got around and people started suggesting things to film. When picking things and people to film, he says, he never tries to figure out “what’s representational of a place. I don’t even know how to think out that.” In the case of Belfast, he decided to start with institutions he had covered in other films, like the police department, the welfare office, the high school and a theater group.

Wiseman first came to Maine in the early 1970s because his friend Neil Welliver, the painter, had a place in Lincolnville and recommended the area. Wiseman bought a barn and had it moved to land in Northport, and he made it into a home where he often edited films as well. Some of his favorite Maine activities include taking his small motor boat out into Penobscot Bay and exploring with his children and grandchildren. He also likes biking and walking in the Camden Hills.

He says he finds Maine “very relaxing” and a “true vacation,” yet there have been many years when he brought his editing equipment up to Northport with him and worked on films.


A scene from Frederick Wiseman’s 2011 documentary film “Crazy Horse.” Photos courtesy of Zipporah Films

Wiseman grew up in Boston, in the neighborhood of Brighton. His father was a lawyer. He was a “sports nut” as a child who memorized baseball records going back to the 1890s. But he also loved going to the neighborhood movie houses, he said. When asked to name the favorite films and stars of his youth, he listed a string of comedians, including the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and writer-director Preston Sturges, who made such ahead-of-their time social comedies as “Sullivan’s Travels” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.” The former is about a director who wants to make a serious movie about the suffering of the Great Depression but learns that comedies are more necessary at the time to lift people’s spirits.

Wiseman said he had no strong feeling about what he might do for a living while growing up. He went to Yale Law School and then served in the Army. When he got out, he lived in Paris for a while, with money from the G.I. Bill, and got involved with filmmaking there. He moved back to the United States and taught at Boston University. He took law students on tours of the Bridgewater State Hospital, part of the state corrections system, which was to become the setting for “Titicut Follies.”

When he reached “the witching age of 30,” Wiseman decided he needed to find something he was passionate about doing. The idea of making what today constitutes a documentary film, with film and sound recorded in sync, was still relatively new in the late 1950s. He worked on one film for another director before starting to work on his own in the mid-1960s.

A scene from Frederick Wiseman’s 1975 documentary film “Welfare.” Photo courtesy of Zipporah Films

He still works much the same as when he started. He is present at every shoot, he edits the film, and he distributes his movies through his own company. His office and studio have stacks of DVDs ready for sale and dozens of cases of film, ready to be shipped out to theaters and festivals.

He still has a clunky metal film editing machine, some of it held together by duct tape, which he says he keeps partly “for sentimental reasons” and partly because he hopes that some day he can make a movie on film again. For now, though, there aren’t enough film labs, he said, and the development process is too expensive.

He has an idea for his next film, but he wouldn’t discuss it.

Wiseman once was asked to pick his favorite documentary and talk about it as part of a film series. He picked the outrageous 1933 comedy “Duck Soup” by the Marx Brothers. In it, the Marx Brothers play ridiculous characters who become important figures in their countries, trying to foment nationalism and war as the best way to end financial and political problems.

Wiseman knows the film, in actuality, is not a documentary. But he sees important similarities.

“If you look at the abstract issues of ‘Duck Soup,’ they anticipated (President) Trump, Iraq and so much of what is going on in the world today,” he said.

It’s part of human nature for all kinds of people and all kinds of situations to seem funny, Wiseman said.

“I think some of my movies are very funny – I mean they’re funny to me. I don’t make fun of people, because I’d only be making a fool of myself. But it’s funny to see a former welfare worker, who is obviously lying, applying for welfare,” as in the film “Welfare,” said Wiseman. “There’s a burden imposed on documentaries that they’re supposed to be good for you, like Ex-Lax. But there’s no reason they can’t be as entertaining or sad or tragic as a fiction film.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 210-1183 or at:

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