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Who Says Films Can't Change Society? Lincoln Center Honors Human Rights Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman

By David Callahan

Frederick Wiseman won the IDA Career Achievement Award in 1990.

One measure of Frederick Wiseman's renown is the size of the large, enthusiastic crowds that braved harsh winter weather to attend "Frederick Wiseman: American Filmmaker." The retrospective, held at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater from Jan. 28 through Feb.24, included all 30 of Wiseman's feature-length documentaries, from the long-suppressed Titicut Follies (1961) through his most recent, Belfast, Maine (1999). The event was organized in association with the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which, as part of the series, presented Wiseman with the 2000 Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award for his lifelong commitment to human rights filmmaking." The retrospective was an excellent opportunity to analyze the evolution of his 33-year career.

The series led off with the premiere of Belfast, Maine. Running 245 minutes, Belfast, Maine is a portrait of a small, mostly white, working-class port town. Working in a characteristically exacting, patient manner, Wiseman captures Belfast's routines and rhythms. Lobster fisherman haul in a day's catch' Factory workers fill frozen food packages on an assembly line. A baker expertly prepares pastries in his shop.

In echoes of earlier Wiseman films, Belfast, Maine also visits a local high school, church and ballet class, and observes social and health care workers at their jobs. Like any other town, Belfast has its difficulties, and Wiseman is there to record them. He does not, however, present Belfast as a microcosm of flawed societal systems.

Shattering stereotypical perceptions of rural America as stiflingly conservative and intolerant, Wiseman shows us a place where residents take a humane, civic-minded approach to problem-solving and community development. The ill and elderly are treated to personalized home care. City council meetings are well attended and invite vigorous participation. A support group attends to the concerns of gays and lesbians. And teachers engage attentive students by relating class lessons to local history.

The gentle treatment is somewhat unexpected when one recalls Titicut Follies (1961), High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1910), Juvenile Court (1973) and Welfare (1975). Those films reveal how our essential institutions usually contradict their mandates, and are some times so steeped in self-justifying bureaucracy that they are unable to acknowledge their failings, let alone correct them. By contrast, Belfast, Maine portrays a quietly functional village, where services work to the townspeople's advantage.

Positioned at the series' outset, Belfast, Maine suggests that Wiseman may perhaps have moved beyond the role of chronicler and become a prescriptive filmmaker. Back-to-back screenings of High School and High School II (1994), scheduled three days into the retrospective, illustrate the differences. The earlier film is an unsettling portrait of a public educational institution-cum-conformity factory, where students are taught to yield to authority unquestioningly. The follow-up was shot inside New York City's Central Park East Secondary School, a progressive, racially mixed alternative high school where individual expression is encouraged, personal excellence is expected, and teachers and administrators engage in meaningful dialogues with students and parents.

The first film is a mirror of what we are, the second a portrait of what we can be with care, intelligence and effort. Public Housing (1991) further confirms the tendency. A stark depiction of American poverty as manifested at a Chicago housing project, Public Housing is a demonstration of how a community struggles against its marginalization instead of succumbing to it. Wiseman documents the myriad problems that plague the development, but he also concentrates on how these problems are addressed, by activist residents, social workers, educators and even members of a sympathetic housing police force.

The strong response the early films provoked from the Lincoln Center audiences attest to their lasting cogency. Optimistically, Wiseman's entire body of work acts as a record of how American society may have improved since Wiseman first exposed the horrific conditions at a Massachusetts state mental hospital. The value of "Frederick Wiseman: American Filmmaker" is the revelation that Wiseman, as someone who has devoted his career to revealing our weaknesses as well as our potential strengths, has had something to do with that change.


David Callahan is the Senior Film/Video Librarian of The New York Public Library's Donnell Media Center.