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Groundbreaking filmmaker, societal gadfly coming to Penn

September 12, 2008

wiseman.jpgStarting this Sunday, the Penn Cinema Studies Department is honoring one of the most celebrated and influential filmmakers of this era: Frederick Wiseman. 

Originally trained as a lawyer, Wiseman left began shooting documentaries in the early 1960s.  Wiseman’s directorial style, which includes no apparent interaction with the director and no interviews, is often considered part of the “direct cinema” or “cinema verite” movement, which aims to provide a more intimate, confessional relationship between subject and audience.  Wiseman was one of the first American filmmakers to employ this style, along with fellow documentarians the Maysles Brothers.

In addition to his considerable gifts to technique, Wiseman is also acclaimed for his subject matter.  In movies like High School (showing Sunday night at the Bridge), Juvenile Court, and Welfare, Wiseman analyzes core institutions of American society and their effects on the individual.  His most heralded film, 1967’s Titicut Follies is widely regarded as a searing expose of the treatment of patients in the State Prison for the Criminally Insance in Bridgewater, Massachussetts.  Controversial from the day it was released, Tititcut Follies was actually not widely seen until 1992, because Massachussetts courts had determined that the film was an invasion of the inmates’ privacy.

The two day-event will include a viewing of Wiseman’s High School and Titicut Follies, as well as a public interview with the filmmaker on Monday night.  I was glad to see posters for the event displayed around the law school, because Wiseman’s work would resonate with anyone interested in public policy, social justice, and the law.  In many ways, the good work coming out of Professor Austin’s Visual Legal Advocacy program is indebted to the documentaries Wiseman put almost 40 years before.  I have only seen a part of one of his documentaries–Juvenile Court, which assumes a fly-on-the-wall perspective on juvenile justice in 1970s  Memphis–so I am eager to learn more about the important director.  If you have the time, I encourage you to attend at least one of the movies, if not the conversation.

Details about the event can be found here.  You can find out more about Wiseman here.