Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck

Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck


The Whys of Frederick Wiseman

Por Magaly Olivera

7 may 2018


Translated by Sara Sandoval


On Saturday, May 5, at the Cineteca Nacional, a master class took place with Frederick Wiseman, a prolific American filmmaker.

Through a videoconference, Wiseman showed fragments of his work, and exposed some keys to understand the reasons behind his decisions when directing and editing his films. Among the elements mentioned, a constant is the link between the literal and the abstract.

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017)

In the characteristic cinema of Frederick Wiseman, many scenes usually have a longer duration than usual and tend to present faithfully what happens in the life of places and people portrayed in his work. Shots of 15 minutes of a couple talking, others of 10 minutes of a presentation of a book, to name a few examples, are proof of this. According to the director, a way of representing, in a natural way, what happens in front of his camera is to keep in mind the relationship that exists between the literal and the abstract, where the literal refers to what we can see of people (their clothes, the expression on their faces, the way they speak, their skin color, their gender, etc.) and the abstract are the decisions taken at the time of directing and editing, based on what the literal represents of each place. Thus, the filmmaker explains that when selecting the sequences that will be included in his documentaries, he links the literal with the abstract through questions such as: what is learned from people’s clothes? What do their faces show? What can we learn of the places from the people who are in them? These doubts glimpse the techniques of Wiseman when making decisions and show the depth of his work: questioning the meaning of each detail in Wiseman’s cinema is what allows us to understand his film practice. Everything has a reason.

National Gallery (2014)

In the master class, Wiseman also mentioned that he usually works with more than 100 hours of footage in each film he has made, and that with this material – after looking at it completely- he spends six to eight months selecting sequences of what he considers representative of the relationship of the literal with the abstract. That is why each shot of his films raises a series of questions in the viewer about what exists behind what we see on the screen, which allows him to get closer and understand the nature of the places and people that Wiseman portrays in his over forty documentaries.

Other elements that contribute to the relationship between the literal and the abstract in his work are sound and titles. The sound in Wiseman’s work exclusively reflects what happens in the places he shoots, and the titles do not adorn the reality of what each film seeks to represent. Wiseman exposes through these decisions all the variety that exists in the ordinary. Therefore, the director himself confesses, it is important to shoot during a long time, because when people observe carefully is when they find the most interesting moments in the naturalness of each moment. In addition, the filmmaker believes that this is a way to show solidarity to the subject he films, and not to television networks or preset durations by the film industry.

Titicut Follies (1967)

Finally, Frederick Wiseman said that what he has learned the most during his 50-year career has been to edit his films, which again shows the complexity that exists in his work at the time of interpreting it. Each sequence matters, each gesture has a motive and each space has a reason. Wiseman’s cinema not only shows reality in an honest and faithful way, but also allows the viewer to be an active audience by deciphering the motives behind everything he sees, both cinematographically and as a way of social criticism.

The 2018 Ambulante Festival dedicates its retrospective to Frederick Wiseman with a selection of his work, which can be seen at the Cineteca Nacional from May 3 to May 17. Check details in the program of CDMX.


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