A Master Class from Frederick Wiseman
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A Master Class from Frederick Wiseman

The legendary documentarian gives a rapt audience at U of T a glimpse into his filmmaking mindset.

This past weekend, legendary documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman lectured at Innis Town Hall, discussing his extraordinary documentary film career. The master class, which came with a price tag of $60 to non-DOC (Documentary Organization of Canada) members and $25 for students, was largely attended by other filmmakers and documentarians eager to get a rare look into the process of a true documentary master, and arguably the non-fiction chronicler of post-war American experience.

Wiseman led a group play-by-play semiotic analysis of the first 15 minutes of Welfare (1975) to illustrate his frame of mind and considerations when constructing a film. The audience deconstructed each sequence of the scene until they figured out why he’d used a specific sound or moment at that particular point in the clip. It was an exercise, in Wiseman’s words, “to illustrate the kind of thinking that I think I have to go through.”

This was an intriguing exercise mainly because Wiseman forgoes inserting artificial narrative devices like voiceovers or captions and only uses candid footage. Wiseman’s style has its roots in the so-called “direct cinema” of mid-century Canadian documentarians like Gilles Groulx and Michel Brault. (Though Wiseman, for what it’s worth, has always bucked these associations, believing his films to have dramatic and emotional arcs that are deeper than the result of just hanging around with a camera running.) In the case of Welfare, he edited together just shy of three hours of footage from the more than 90 hours he had captured. Wiseman’s films never directly reveal what he is thinking or saying. Meaning is always inferred. By breaking down his work moment by moment, the participants were able to get a sense of the intense consideration Wiseman puts into editing together his sequences.

When going through this exercise, it often took a few guesses from the audience to determine precisely why Wiseman had chosen specific moments and what he was trying to say through showing them. An audience member suggested that because Wiseman doesn’t tell the audience what he is trying to say, his audience is going to frequently misconstrue the meaning. Wiseman suggested that he didn’t really care if people didn’t think the same thing about his films as he does—so long as they think. Wiseman detests didacticism and feels that an audience will learn much more if they figure out something for themselves, versus being told what to think. After almost 50 years of filmmaking and producing more than 40 films, Wiseman absolutely knows what works for him. He isn’t about to do something he doesn’t like, simply for the reason that he doesn’t like it.

For the young hopeful documentarians in attendance, most of Wiseman’s advice and personal stories must have demystified the process of becoming a filmmaker. Wiseman knew he liked documentary, but it isn’t as if he made one film and then all of a sudden was a star. (Far from it: his first major film, Titicut Follies, was banned for several years for reasons we’d need a whole separate story to explain.) For the first five years of Wiseman’s documentary film career he worked two jobs while editing film at night and on weekends. It wasn’t and isn’t glamourous or particularly lucrative, but he deeply loves learning about the world though making documentary films and suggests that, at 81 years old, he is far from any kind of retirement. Indeed, many are calling Crazy Horse (which screens at TIFF 2011) his best effort in years.

Photos by Corbin Smith.