It's like a broken record: the cry of "foul" each year when the Academy
announces its nominations for Best Documentary. Do the voters -- generally
imagined to be a bunch of male industry retirees with time on their hands --
have their heads in close range of their prostates? Hoop Dreams and
Crumb are two of the most egregious recent non-nominations; and
Cambridge's Errol Morris has been virtually blackballed by the Academy, denied
nominations for The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of
Time, and this year's Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.
Frederick Wiseman, the dean of American documentarians, thought for a moment
that he might try to qualify this year, after his more-than-three-hour opus
Public Housing played so successfully at last October's New York Film
Festival. Was it worth it to open Public Housing for a week in LA
or New York, expensive prerequisites for an Academy Award nomination?
Astutely, he decided it wasn't. Wiseman has done perfectly well -- even
receiving a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant -- without once being an Oscar
candidate. He's made 30 nonfiction features in 30 years, starting with his two
incendiary classics, Titicut Follies (1967) and High School
(1969). The Cambridge resident and former BU law professor has long been
celebrated for scrutinizing American institutions in such rich, multilayered
works as Hospital (1970), Juvenile Court (1973), and Welfare
(1975), and for the corrosive humor of films like Primate (1974) and
Public Housing, which aired on PBS in December, is among the finest of
all his works. To discuss the film and other documentary matters, we recently
visited Wiseman's office at Zipporah Films, in Cambridge, and squeezed in next
to the nondigital Steenbeck editing machine that Wiseman bought used from WGBH,
and on which he is editing his 31st film, Belfast, Maine.
Q: Why the subject for Public Housing?
A: It's consistent with what I've done before, looking at American
institutions that affect a lot of people. Public housing has been around in the
US since the mid-'30s, and I was interested in what daily life is like in a
public housing development.
It seemed a subject that lent itself to the technique I use. I try to immerse
myself, to the extent I can, in the life of a place of which I have little
prior knowledge. I don't go in with a thesis I try to prove or disprove. The
shooting of the film is the research. My response to that experience is what
the final film is about.
Q: Why Chicago?
A: I picked Chicago not as a result of a search or a survey, but
because in my mind Chicago was synonymous with public housing. The Chicago
Housing Authority [CHA], the city agency responsible for operating public
housing, has always had difficulties, and what happens in Chicago has always
been national news. That's probably what led me to Chicago -- knowing that
public housing there had a lot of problems, that there wasn't money for
renovation, that many buildings were rat infested, that a high percentage of
residents were unemployed and on welfare, that some people used drugs, that
other people sold drugs, and that there was often gang warfare.
Q: Once you picked the city, how did you proceed?
A: A friend of mine introduced me to Vincent Lane, who was the CHA
head, and Lane made arrangements for me to be taken around to a number of
developments. There's a four-mile area on the South Side of Chicago where
there's just one black housing development after another, separated from
lower-middle-class white suburbs by a 10-lane highway, deliberately placed
there by the late Mayor Richard Daley to separate the black and white
I knew that I didn't want to do a movie solely about a high-rise development,
because it would be difficult to get to the people. I settled on the Ida B.
Wells development because it was a combination of low-rise, medium-rise, and
high-rise, which constituted the different architectural styles associated with
public housing. Wells is spread out over 75 acres, and there was good
likelihood of meeting people on the street. Some apartments were ground-level,
and I thought that would be easier for access.
Q: Many amazing scenes in Public Housing involve interactions
between the citizens of Ida B. Wells and the police. How did you arrange to
film these episodes?
A: The CHA has its own police force, whose members have exactly the
same training as regular Chicago city police. Vincent Lane introduced me to the
chief of the CHA police. I told him I was interested in making a film, and that
in order to do it, I'd need his cooperation. Through the chain of command, he
informed the lieutenant who was in charge of the station at Wells, and the
lieutenant notified the police working at Wells that a movie was being made.
Any time I wanted to ride in the patrol cars, I would just go in and say, "Can
I ride today?" Word was out among the officers who patrolled Wells that it was
okay to let me film, so I didn't have to ask permission every time.
Q: Did the police put you to a test?
A: I was conscious of the fact that they would be sizing me up, but
that's not just true of the cops. It's true of everybody.
Maybe the cops were more self-conscious, but there's no difference in the
validity of the material. You see many policemen in Public
Housing. I went out with different cops on two-cop patrols, different
one night than another night. In my experience, neither the police nor anyone
else had the capacity to act for the camera.
Q: How do you compare your documentary scenes of police and those in
the "reality-based" cop shows that proliferate on American TV?
A: I've never seen those shows, so I'm really not able to respond.
Q: Do you socialize with the people you are filming?
A: I deliberately try not to do that. I try to be friendly, and I hope
I am friendly, but not phony. I try not to convey the impression that we're
going to be friends for a long period of time, because it's not going to
happen. I mean, with Public Housing, we live in different cities. It's a
professional situation. I was there in Chicago to make a movie. That didn't
mean I wouldn't have a sandwich when I was riding around in a cop car. But to
make plans, so to speak -- I wouldn't do that, because it's
Q: Do you look for "drama" while shooting?
A: The first thought: I'm trying to make a movie. A movie has to have
dramatic sequence and structure. I don't have a very precise definition of what
constitutes drama, but I'm gambling that I'm going to get dramatic episodes.
Otherwise, it becomes Andy Warhol's movie on the Empire State Building. So,
yes, I am looking for drama, though I'm not necessarily looking for
people beating each other up, shooting each other. There's a lot of drama in
ordinary experiences. In Public Housing, there was drama in that old man
being evicted from his apartment by the police. There was a lot of drama in
that old woman at her kitchen table peeling a cabbage.
Q: What did you see in that cabbage scene?
A: I saw a woman alone, in a very sparsely furnished apartment, who
once was independent. The way she examined and peeled the cabbage -- there was
an element of control. The patience and endurance suggested to me the way she
led her life. When she talked on the phone, she was clearly disappointed that
someone I took to be a member of her family was not going to show up. I read
into that a whole history of family relationships. She was disappointed, but
she accepted it as stoically as she'd examined the cabbage. I found that
dramatic -- not in a shoot-'em-up sense, but dramatic in a sense of the
expression of feeling.
Q: In both High School II and Public Housing, you've had sex-education scenes in which someone demonstrates the use of condoms. In High School II, the demonstration is to an eager audience of concerned liberal teachers. In Public Housing, it's a lecture, probably too late, to a group of lost-looking young girls, many of them already mothers. Do you include these scenes as a sneaky way to give the audience your own sex-education lesson?
A: No, I was interested in the contexts of the sex-education talks. In
Public Housing, there was maybe 5 percent social consciousness on
my part in the scene. There was something funny about the nurse giving a
lecture on using condoms in the foreground, the babies crying and those young
girls reacting to the talk, especially their reaction to a female condom! With
a scene like that, which operated on many levels, the trick was to identify the
combination of what was really going on with the unintended effect of what was
Q: Though many pass through Public Housing, you focus
especially on two people with disparate philosophies of government. There's an
old lady who is a veteran of Ida B. Wells, and she's a world-weary pragmatist
about the hard life there. She battles for tiny improvements, but she's
skeptical of government promises about real opportunities for the denizens of
the housing project.
She's contrasted with a young black man bursting with optimism, who gives
speeches to the people of Ida B. Wells telling them they can start their own
businesses -- that Bill Clinton's America is filled with economic opportunities
for black people, even those with arrest records.
First, who are they?
A: Mrs. Finner was head of the Ida B. Wells Tenants Council for
20 years, for which she was paid a very small amount, more a stipend than a
The guy is Ron Carter, a former point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. He
started off as a private developer, then went to work for the Department of
Housing and Urban Development under Clinton as an economic development expert.
At the making of Public Housing, he'd just come to Chicago, checking to
see what programs he could try out. He was trying to familiarize himself with
Wells and some other developments. He had a key federal job connected with
training people and finding them work, and helping start new businesses.
Q: Did you choose them as protagonists before shooting?
A: I didn't choose them in advance. I chose them in the editing because
of the meetings they were in, and because the things they said were important
expressions of themes that I felt were in the material.
Mrs. Finner, to me, represented old-time politics in the Tammany Hall sense. A
Tammany captain who knew her territory, helped her constituents, and expected
them to support her, vote for her. "You do this for me, I do this for you." She
liked exercising power, and she was very effective in representing the
residents. She's a strong woman.
Ron Carter represented outside ideas, some kind of government hope. I was
interested in the language he used, the educated explanation of economic ideas
at the first meeting, the street language at the midnight basketball-court
meeting. Were the changes in language made consciously or unconsciously?
There's also the interesting issue of him, a middle-class black, coming out of
an environment similar to Wells, who now wanted to do something. What kind of
interventions could he make?
Q: They come together only once . . .
A: In the scene where Ron Carter talks to the Tenants Council, and Mrs.
Finner makes the complaint to him that people from Wells get job training but
afterward there are no jobs.
Q: Did you show the completed Public Housing to the residents
of Ida B. Wells?
A: I wanted to, but I got caught in a power struggle at the Tenants
Council. There's no movie theater in the neighborhood, so I needed the
cooperation of the council to arrange a screening. I was going to rent buses
and bring people to a showing. But Mrs. Finner is no longer the head of the
council, and the interim head didn't want the movie shown to the tenants. This
woman was somewhat fearful that screening it would enhance Mrs. Finner's
prestige. So I couldn't get anybody to help me.
Q: Did anyone at Ida B. Wells tell you that they watched Public
Housing when it aired nationally on PBS?
A: I did hear from a couple of people there who liked it. The response
I've had from black people in general has been very enthusiastic. The film
shows a lot of competent black people, and people really trying. I have great
admiration for people like the drug counselor I show, or some of the social
workers, who do their best to work the issues, day in and day out. These people
never get attention: the patience that's required to be a drug counselor is
Q: Maybe the greatest scene in Public Housing is where that
very savvy drug counselor listens to the chronic drug-taker's tale of woe and
decides whether to recommend to a judge that the drug-taker get help instead of
a jail sentence.
A: He was really good! I have an hour and three-quarters of that
interview edited down to 10 minutes in the film, which only begins to suggest
the complexity of that man's life.
Q: Public Housing seems to me to consistent with a softening toward
humanity in your more recent films. I detect a desire, without getting
sentimental, to show more of your subjects in a better light. Earlier, there
were stretches where your films were deeply cynical.
A: I don't agree with that at all. I think what's shown in any of my
movies is not a reflection of my attitude toward humanity in general, which I'd
be hard pressed to express, but my response to a particular place. In
Hospital , my fourth movie, the nurses come off quite well. Even
in Titicut Follies, the guards, in their own way, were more tuned to the
needs of the inmates than the so-called helping professionals. The principal
guard, Eddie, was a nice guy who responded to the inmates as human beings.
Law and Order, which was made in 1968 after the Democratic Convention
in Chicago, is not a film that, in my mind, "does in" the police. They do some
nice things as well as horrible things. There's the cop who takes the little
girl who is lost to the police station. On the other extreme, there's the cop
who starts strangling the woman accused of prostitution. And you have lots of
police in between.
To me it's too complicated to say that one group of films is more cynical than
another. I cannot make sociological generalizations about human behavior.
Q: What do you think of the view of documentary as a reformist
A: A lot of people think the purpose of documentary films is to expose
injustice, or that the films are made to correct the filmmaker's idea of
injustice. I think that's a strand of documentary, but it's certainly not the
My first films, High School and Titicut Follies, were partly an
example of that strand, somewhat didactic. The correctional institution at
Bridgewater [Massachusetts] was a horrible place in Titicut
Follies, but even within that horror, there were people who worked hard and
well. And since making Law and Order, to the extent that I've been
trying to do anything, it's to show as wide a range of human behavior as
possible, its enormous complexity and diversity.
But even High School is somewhat open-ended. When it was first shown in
Boston, in 1969, one of the people who saw it was Louise Day Hicks, a very
conservative member of the Boston School Committee. I thought she'd hate the
movie. But she came up and said, "Mr. Wiseman, that was a wonderful high
school!" I thought she was kidding me -- until I realized she was on the other
side from me on all the value questions. Everything I thought I was parodying,
she thought was great.
I don't think her reaction represents a failure of the film. Instead, we have
an illustration that reality is ambiguous, a complex mirror -- that the "real"
film takes place where the mind of the viewer meets the screen. It's how the
viewer interprets the events.
With Public Housing, some people think the film represents hope, others
that it's pessimistic.
Q:What about High School II? It seems
obvious to me watching it that, this time, you chose an exemplary secondary
school, where progressive, humane education really works.
A: I deliberately picked a high school that was different in a
variety of ways from that first high school. In the first school, there were
4000 white students and only 12 black students. This one was 45 percent
black, 45 percent Hispanic, only 10 percent white.
[With the second film], I believe that some people seeing it might ask whether
the students are getting a good education. I'm not suggesting I think
that, but people who see High School II could complain, "Where's the
Latin? Where's the Greek? Where's the discussion of the contexts of language?
Why is everything turned into a sociological text?" I mean, those are
legitimate questions about that kind of education.
Q: I found little drama in The Store , Aspen
, and La Comédie Française . I couldn't
understand what you found interesting about the goings-on at Neiman-Marcus. The
yuppies of Aspen, Colorado, seemed passive and uninteresting. I got very tired
of watching play rehearsals by the Comeacute;die Française. Could you say
something about what you were attempting in those three films?
A: La Comédie Française is, in my view, a very
abstract movie, and I disagree with you about there not being a lot of drama.
It's drama of a different kind. What I think I'm doing in the movie is playing
around with a lot of ideas about what constitutes love, and that informs all
the sequences, both the rehearsals and the performance.
Aspen, I think, was a little mean on my part. One of my favorite scenes
in the movie is a discussion of Flaubert's story "A Simple Heart" by an
adult-education group that meets once a week. They're talking about this great
story about a poor woman who sacrifices herself for a family and then gets
dumped by the family. The discussion by the people is very revealing of their
values, this echo between the life of this poor woman in the story and these
people's lives in Aspen.
As for The Store, think of it on a double bill with Welfare or Public Housing. I'm interested in class in American life, and movies like Aspen and The Store give an opportunity to look at people from a different walk of life.
We're back to the question of what's a legitimate subject for a documentary.
Some people think the only subject is to show poor people and how they are
victims. But I'm interested in showing all classes of American life, how rich
people live as well as poor people. Racetrack  is another movie
about class, from Haitian immigrants who work at the track to some of the
richest people in the world, who own the horses. I don't just take the more
obvious subject of people who haven't made it, but I show the people who
have made it. What their values are seems just as important. My goal is
to make as many films as possible about different aspects of American life.
Q: How much do you listen to television executives who want you to
make films at "normal" length?
A: I have an obligation to the people about whom I make a film that it
be my report on what I've learned. I have a responsibility to myself to make
the best film I can make out of the material. I feel less of an obligation to a
network that is basically looking for product. I don't ever want to put myself
in a position of making product.
Some of my films are short. High School is 73 minutes. Near
Death (1989) is six hours, but even at that length I just suggest some of
the complexity surrounding termination of medical treatment. There's no way, at
least for me, to boil down the four medical cases I followed.
When my technique works, the audience becomes involved because they are placed
in the middle of the sequences and are asked to think through their own
relationship to what they are seeing and hearing. But I don't know how to think
ahead about them, and I believe that it is presumptuous to do so. If I did
tailor my films to an audience, I'd get into the Hollywood way of diluting the
work to reach the lowest common denominator. That doesn't interest me. Happily,
Near Death ran complete and uncut on American TV, a Sunday afternoon in
winter a week before the Super Bowl, and it had a very big audience. And it ran
complete until two in the morning on French TV, and it had a very big audience.