Skip to main content

Playback: Frederick Wiseman's 'Titicut Follies'

By Laura Poitras

Courtesy Bridgewater Film Company

"The passionate mastering of documentary material is a bracing cure for the self-spiralings and unremitting inwardness that a long novel can inflict on a writer."

-- Don DeLillo, "The Power of History"


If you were a novelist and you sat down to write a story about what goes on behind the closed doors of a state institution for the criminally insane, not even the most imaginative of us would come up with the idea of opening with a variety show, where guards and inmates lock arms, swing pom-poms and belt out a chorus of "Strike Up the Band."

If you were a novelist and not confined by the constraints of institutional access that burden documentarians, you might imagine a scene where an inmate admits to molesting young girls, and then confesses to raping his own daughter.  

These two scenes, which open Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies (1967), are stunning for what they reveal, but also for how they are revealed. At its most literal, Titicut Follies is about the conditions inside the Bridgewater (Massachusetts) State Prison for the Criminally Insane. At its most literary, the film is a meditation on the line separating the sane from the insane, Cold War America, and the Vietnam War.

Novelist Don DeLillo uses documentary material in his work as a "bracing cure" to temper his spiraling imagination. Wiseman does something similar, in reverse. The bracing cure for life inside Bridgewater is a journey into the spiraling imaginations of the men locked inside--inmates and guards alike--and Wiseman's own. It is hard to imagine today a documentary as bereft of exposition, brutal in content and lyrical in structure. In Titicut, madmen utter truths and prison guards perform Broadway skits.

I am awed by John Marshall's camerawork on Titicut. There is the shot in the prison courtyard of the inmate reciting a soliloquy against the Vietnam War, and behind him, two legs hang suspended upside-down. We watch for two minutes until finally the film reveals a man in a headstand delivering his own monologue. There's also the continuous shot of an inmate being led naked to his cell, locked inside, and the camera pushing to peer through the guard's peephole, revealing the inmate gazing out his cell window.

You can't write those kinds of moments; they move and are delightful because they are real--and yet we often miss them because of our focus on "issues" rather than the drama and poetry of how people express and navigate the world they inhabit.

I have seen Titicut at many stages in my filmmaking life. The first time, nearly 20 years ago, I was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. The film had been banned from public screening by the State of Massachusetts, but colleges were allowed to show it for educational purposes. I remember being shocked. 

Seeing Titicut Follies recently, I was struck by something unexpected and disturbing. As I watched naked men being humiliated, the sadistic taunting by the prison guards and the force-feeding of inmates, these images now seemed to depict a kinder, gentler America. They have been replaced by other, more shocking images: a murdered man packed in ice, dog collars, human pyramids, electric wire dangling from bodies. I shudder to think what images will replace these, and make these seem more kind and gentle.


Titicut Follies, along with most of Wiseman's documentaries, will finally be released on DVD for individual purchase in December 2007.  For information, contact

Laura Poitras was nominated for an Academy Award for her Iraq War documentary, My Country, My Country. She is currently shooting a project about men returning home from Guantanamo Bay Prison. Both films are part of a trilogy titled The New American Century.