Frederick Wiseman is one of cinema’s foremost documentarians. If that sounds interesting, here are 10 of his best films.
Frederick Wiseman is one of cinema’s foremost documentarians. Over the last five decades, he has chronicled American life in a breadth and manner few filmmakers could hope to match. Even though they are essential viewing, Wiseman’s documentaries can be off-putting to a first time viewer. His films are epics that are frequently over three hours in length. They lack narration, talking heads, and interviews.
Instead, Wiseman is an observer who simply shoots things as they happen. He often shoots upwards of 100 hours of footage and uses his incredible editing skills to piece together a film.
If that sounds interesting, here are 10 of his best films.
10 Titicut Follies (1967) – 7.7
Titicut Follies is Wiseman’s 1967 directorial debut. It depicts the patients at the Bridgewater State Hospital, a facility for the criminally insane in eastern Massachusetts. The film is incredibly graphic by even today’s standards. It shows patients in empty cells, being force-fed, forced to strip naked and bullied by the hospital staff. Massachusetts went to great lengths to water down the film and hide it from the public; hospital staff followed Wiseman throughout the production and the state’s governor tried to ban the film’s release. Follies was finally shown to the public in 1992.
9 Blind (1987) – 7.8
Wiseman released several films concerning people with disabilities in 1986 and 1987. The quadrilogy of Deaf, Adjustment & Work, Multi-Handicapped and Blind is among his most electric and infuriating work. Blind is one of the happier films in the set. It follows students at Alabama School for the Blind as they learn how to be independent individuals through vocational training, learning how to walk with a cane and read Braille, among other subjects.
For a film by a sighted director, it’s an incredible look into the lives of the blind.
8 Central Park (1990) – 7.8
Central Park depicts the titular park in New York City in the late 1980s. Released mere months after the crime that would see the Central Park Five wrongly convicted, Wiseman’s film instead argues for the park’s continued existence. Wiseman depicts both the myriad ways in which the public uses the park and the troubles the park district faces in keeping the park open. The film is the tragedy of the commons on the big screen but makes the case that communal spaces are worth preserving no matter the cost.
7 Domestic Violence (2001) – 7.9
Wiseman’s 2001 film Domestic Violence focuses on police and domestic violence survivors in Tampa, Florida. Most of the film takes place at The Spring, a clinic for domestic violence survivors. The scenes focusing on survivors are compelling; viewers watch these women try to find a way forward from abusive relationships or even just find the tools to recognize abuse in the first place. Violence is a rare Wiseman film because it depicts cops in a relatively positive light. Many of his other films, including some on this list, are less than kind to police officers.
6 Public Housing (1997) – 8.0
As a place, Chicago’s South Side is too vast to be generalized. It is far from perfect, but it is also not the hellish war zone some make it out to be. It is also a setting rife with real-life drama. Wiseman taps into that drama in 1997’s Public Housing, a documentary focused on the now-demolished Ida B. Wells housing projects in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
In three hours and 20 minutes, Wiseman depicts the very real people that lived in the projects and the bureaucratic machinery everyone must overcome to survive.
5 Juvenile Court (1973) – 8.3
1973’s Juvenile Court depicts several cases in the Memphis Juvenile Court. Viewers are literally stuck in the building: Wiseman doesn’t cut to an exterior until the final three shots. The result puts viewers in league with the children on trial as the walls figuratively close in on them. The children depicted are perpetrators of crimes and victims of the system that led them to commit crimes. Similarly, the adults are neither heroes nor villains. Everyone in the film is fully realized, like the very best of Wiseman’s work.
The children on trial here are terrified; perhaps just as terrified as any adult would be in their situation.
4 Welfare (1975) – 8.3
Welfare is by no means Wiseman’s first work to examine the effect of bureaucracy on ordinary people, but it is among his best in that regard. Much like his later films Public Housing and Domestic Violence, Welfare depicts how the churn of a bureaucratic structure can destroy those who work within or are subject to it. The film is never defeatist, but Wiseman makes it clear where he stands: the game is rigged and no one he depicts here is anywhere close to winning.
3 Near Death (1989) – 8.4
Near Death is six-hours long. Wiseman’s documentary about the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Beth Israel Hospital in his native Boston is a riveting and draining look at end-of-life care. Many in this ICU are unsure of what to do with the remainder of their loved ones’ lives. Wiseman is more sure in his pursuit. Everything here is deliberate. Actions and conversations happen in real-time, allowing viewers to sense just how hard it is to say goodbye.
The film pays special attention to the doctors, who must gently poke and prod at the inevitable without giving families false hope. It’s an incredible display and a bleak triumph of the human spirit.
2 The Garden (2005) – 8.5
Wiseman’s films are notoriously hard to access. Outside of streaming service Kanopy (accessible with a library card or university login), the films have to be bought from Zipporah Films, Wiseman’s boutique distributor. This makes The Garden’s lack of public release puzzling. Wiseman’s documentary about Madison Square Garden was pulled mere days before its premiere due to objections from the Madison Square Garden Company. When asked about these objections, Wiseman said “They only wanted a few lines removed, but they were the kinds of lines that would have made all the scenes meaningless.”
The few people who have seen it have sung its praises to the proverbial arena rafters.
1 Belfast, Maine (1999) – 8.5
Occasionally, Wiseman will turn his focus toward a singular town with no regard for other institutions. Belfast, Maine is one of these films. The four-hour documentary about this town in coastal Maine has no broader agenda. It doesn’t even let viewers live vicariously through its subjects. It subjects are normal people going about their daily lives. Wiseman turns what would normally be a boring proposition into a compelling look at a town in which its residents are stuck.
NEXT: 10 Works By Errol Morris You Should Watch Right Now If You Love Documentaries
Which Dungeons & Dragons Alignment Are You Based On Your Zodiac Type?
About The AuthorChris is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism with a Bachelor’s in Journalism and a minor in Film Studies. He writes about movies for fun and sometimes talks about them on the internet. He’s a freelance writer, film geek, sports fan and game nut. These sometimes interact.
More About Chris Olszewski