The ASC taps groundbreaking documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman for its Award of Distinction.

“This award is coming from the leading organization in its field, so this is a tremendous honor, one of the nicest I’ve ever had, and I’m thrilled to be recognized this way,” says Frederick Wiseman about being honored with the ASC Award of Distinction this year. He is speaking by cell phone while strolling down a busy street in central Paris, where he has been directing a revival of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Suddenly, Wiseman’s words are briefly drowned out by the distinctive wail of a French police siren, which adds an appropriately vérité flavor to the conversation. “Well, it certainly must really sound like I’m in Paris,” he jokes.

The Society’s award, which Wiseman will accept at the 20th Annual ASC Awards on February 26, joins the filmmaker’s many previous honors, including three Emmy Awards and the International Documentary Association’s Career Achievement Award.

A native of Boston and a graduate of Williams College and Yale Law, Wiseman briefly taught at Boston University’s law school before becoming a leading figure in American documentary film with Titicut Follies (1967), his first motion picture. “At the time, I was teaching classes in legal medicine and family law,” Wiseman later said. “And in order to make the things more interesting for both me and the students, I took them on field trips. I thought I would make the cases a bit more real by taking them to trials, parole-board hearings, probation hearings and mental hospitals. One of the places I took them to was Bridgewater, a prison for the criminally insane. When I thought about making a movie, Bridgewater occurred to me as a natural subject. It seemed fresh material from a film point of view and visually very interesting.”

Shot in black-and-white over 29 days, Titicut Follies is a searing look at abuse of power and the inhumane treatment of inmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater. Although the controversial picture earned Wiseman numerous awards, he was sued by the state of Massachusetts, and the film was later determined by the Massachusetts Supreme Court to be an invasion of the inmates’ privacy. As a result, Titicut Follies was banned worldwide until 1991.

Wiseman’s use of the camera in Titicut Follies has been described as “deceptively passive, deceptively silent,” and film continued to roll despite myriad horrors that unfolded before the lens. It is this unflinching, unemotional, unobtrusive approach that would become a hallmark of both Wiseman’s use of the camera and his overall approach to filmmaking. With no narration, music, interviews, or set political agenda, his method came to starkly typify the “direct cinema” tradition of nonfiction film.

Titicut Follies also initiated Wiseman’s so-called “institutional series,” which was produced largely through PBS and examined American social structures and their impact upon individuals and groups. The film was followed by High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1969) and Welfare (1975). Wiseman’s works have also examined less obvious institutions, including the world of fashion (Model, 1980), public space (Central Park, 1989), and the human inevitable (Near Death, 1989). With 35 films to his credit, Wiseman recently completed The Garden (2005), which profiles the labyrin-thine operation of Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. The picture was to have its premiere at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival but was withdrawn because of legal complications. “I’ve always picked subjects that have been around for a time, are common in America and have their counterparts in most other countries — the army, police, education, hospitals, prisons. The subject that links all my films is experiences that are common to many people.”

Asked how his films serve as a window on American culture, Wiseman replies, “My films are subjective, impressionistic accounts of some aspect of American culture. It’s impossible for me to calculate what effect or impact a film or group of films may have. It would be quite pretentious of me to say, ‘They have had the following effect.’ People come to films with such diverse individual life experiences that it’s hard to determine in advance how they might respond to or read a work. I don’t believe there is any direct, traceable relationship between any single work and social change.

“My movies are more novelistic than journalistic or ideological in their approach. I always try to reflect the complexity and ambiguity of the place that is the subject of the film, rather than have ideological blinders on and try to present a particular political or social point of view. I’ve never found any ideology that adequately explains the complex events I’ve come across while making these films. It would be phony for me to offer solutions or explanations when I haven’t found any I believe in. I instead try to supply the audience with enough material to help them make up their own minds by placing them in the events and asking them to think through their own relationship to what they’re seeing and hearing.”

Wiseman’s minimal crew generally consists of three people. He records sound and works with a cinematographer and an assistant, who carries 16mm film magazines and other equipment. Since the 1978 filming of Manoeuvre — a look at NATO war games in Europe — Wiseman’s cinematographer has been Emmy winner John Davey. Wiseman and Davey rarely use movie lights because “we don’t use the kind of planned shooting approach that would allow it,” says the director. “We generally shoot with the lighting we have. There are rare exceptions; we occasionally change the intensity of ordinary lightbulbs, and we once even used a little battery-powered Sun Gun. But nothing in the films is ever staged. I don’t ask people to delay what they’re doing while we set up lights. We’ve got to wing it!

“I’ve worked with John for a long, long time, and we are close friends. The basis of my technique is to be able to respond quickly and unobtrusively. These kinds of shoots are very intimate. You’re working together all day and then you’re watching rushes at night. You’re together for six weeks, so you have to really get along. You have common interests, you talk, and when issues come up, you deal with them. When we shoot, I need a cameraman who is comfortable with changing positions frequently and following the action.” (As Wiseman once described, “We have to move as if the camera and microphone are parts of our bodies.”)

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© 2006 American Cinematographer.