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Frederick Wiseman

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Frederick Wiseman
Wiseman in June 2005
Born (1930-01-01) January 1, 1930 (age 93)
Alma materWilliams College (B.A., 1951)
Yale Law School (LL.B., 1954)
Occupation(s)Director, producer
Years active1963-present
Zipporah Batshaw
(m. 1955; died 2021)

Frederick Wiseman (born January 1, 1930) is an American filmmaker, documentarian, and theater director. His work is "devoted primarily to exploring American institutions".[1] He has been called "one of the most important and original filmmakers working today".[2]

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • You Raise your Children; I Will Teach them French: Rosalind Wiseman at TEDxTeachersCollege


Rosalind Wiseman: Hi. (Audience) Hi. So, I'm Rosalind Wiseman. My job is to teach Ethical Leadership, Media Literacy and Bullying Prevention in schools. What that means is that I'm regularly working with people who think that nothing I say is going to make a difference that will make their life better. If you talk with kids about bullying in schools, they immediately start to roll their eyes. But it's not just the kids who roll their eyes, it's also the teachers. I want to share with you a letter that I received recently from a French teacher, that I think really shows what we're up against. "Dear Rosalind, while I do not advocate ignoring bullying, I can tell you that while I'm sure it goes on, I am not aware of it. I am busy teaching. I don't mean to sound unkind, but wading into the abyss of teenage social cruelty is just not on my agenda. I am a foreign language teacher, not a psychologist or a counselor. So, please stop asking me to assume roles for which I am unprepared, and frankly, I am uninterested. and be all surprised when instruction suffers. Stop wanting teachers to do every job that comes down the pike, You raise your children, I will teach them French." Now, when I finished reading this letter, I thought this person seriously needs to stop teaching. They are completely burnt out, seventh graders have taken their toll, it is time to go. But then, I had an experience a couple of days later, that I really want to share with you, that was extraordinarily profound for me. I regularly teach professional development to teachers. Large regions get together, I stand in front of hundreds, a thousand teachers, and I teach. So, like any day, I walked into the training beforehand, and I want to describe to you what the auditorium was like. The 70s made some very ugly schools. Everything was bunker-style, no windows, and this school had not been renovated, since the 1970s. So, there I was. It was bunkered, no windows, the AV didn't work. The carpet was frayed, it was dark, it sort of smelled, sort of stale. If you all can remember and have a flashback maybe? To school? It was not great. And then I watched the teachers walk in. Now, some of them came and sat in the middle, but not in the front row. No teacher, just like students, are going to sit in the front row. Some of them sat in the back, some scattered, but there was a part of the auditorium where the lights weren't working. And there was a group of teachers and school resource officers that sat in the back right corner where I couldn't see them. Now if you were a teacher, you know that is a problem. I could see that they had already taken out their phones, and everybody in the room had taken out their work. To do their homework, during my professional development training. Now, this is a problem. Because they expect us to be at best so mediocre that it is a complete waste of their time. I wanted to share with them this letter, because I thought this was a great example of: "Wow! Isn't this person burnt out, we need to do better!" Ok, so, I said the letter. I was completely wrong. I have worked in education for 15 years, I was completely wrong. I read the letter. There was silence. Then there was anxious laughter. And then there was laughing, and clapping from the back corner. And everybody in this room felt like this teacher was saying something that they felt, but had never thought they could say out loud. Now, one of the things that I do when I teach, is I talk about the definition of listening. Listening is to be prepared to be changed by what you hear. So, there I was, in this room, mortified that these teachers were laughing and clapping, and then I had to listen. What was happening that these teachers would feel like this was speaking to them? What was happening? Because I know that those teachers did not start teaching feeling totally disconnected from kids. And having this attitude of: "I don't want to wade into the abyss of teenage social drama." What was happening? We have to listen to this. Because these teachers are disengaged and they're feeling like they can't do anything. And I want to explain why, then I want to explain how I think we can get out of it. In the last decade we have spent a tremendous amount of time talking about the failure of education. Teachers hear about failing schools all the time. We also have talked about bullying. In the last several years 48 states have passed bullying laws. Only one of them has connected appropriations with the funds to train teachers to implement those bullying laws. Only one. I don't want to disrespect any of the people who have put together some of these laws, but it is not hard for a politician to put a button on his suit that says, "No Bullying," when he is not the person who actually has to enforce it. It's not fair. And then, not to be able to give the resources to the teachers to help them, is basically like a parent who sets down the rules, and then expects somebody else to do the work. It's not fair. They're receiving no training. Maybe this teacher, this French teacher, is not the best teacher in the world, maybe she never was. But she still needs training. Now, let me say to you, this was hard for me because I have worked for 18 years, 18 years, since I was 22, on the two concepts that are dear to me. One is about dignity. The dignity is not negotiable. The dignity means that every person is worthwhile, and that when you walk into a school your voice is heard, and you matter, and you are visible. The second is that conflict is inevitable, and that probably, abuse of power is likely. And that children and all of us need to have social competence to deal with that, but that we must do it with dignity and tact, of ourselves and others. And here I am, with a group of teachers who I know are so burnt out that they seem like they don't care. Let me give you a moment to realize what a typical teacher's day is like. Seven periods a day, 48 minutes each, maybe a five minute break between those seven periods. In that class there are 30 students, at least 80% of those have smart phones, 20% of the kids who don't have cell phones and smartphones are looking over their shoulder and contributing to what's going on. If you were a parent, you'd know that it's very difficult to get your kid off of games and cell phones; you know it. This teacher has 30 kids, you have one. The teacher hasn't been trained. Then she decides, during her break, that she wants to get a cup of coffee. She has five minutes. She walks down the hallway and she sees something that teachers see every single day that contributes profoundly to the climate and culture of a school. If the climate and culture of a school are the unwritten rules that we know matter, for better or for worse. She walks down the hallway and she sees something uncomfortable. Her stomach tenses. She sees a group of kids that she thinks might be playing, might be bullying, she doesn't know. All of these kids, all of these boys, are six inches taller than she is and she doesn't know them. They're not her students. She walks by, her stomach's clenching and she hears one of them say: "Don't be a faggot," "Don't be retarded," or " Dude, I'm going to call the INS, I'm going to deport you." They laugh. She doesn't like it. She knows they have this bullying policy in place. What's she going to do? What she does is she goes and talks to the target and she says, "Are they bothering you?" There's only one answer that that child can say in that moment, and it completely reinforces the bully's power, "I'm fine, don't worry about it." In that moment, she has completely contributed to the problem. She hasn't been trained, she doesn't know what to do. And by the way, she has 30 kids back in her classroom, and if she doesn't get there, something else could happen. This is what we give teachers. This is what I would suggest that we do. When she's walking down the hallway, and she sees this, she knows that she can't talk to the target. There is no point in asking what is going on. She gets the kids on task, gets them to the class, tells them to go. She assesses them as they walk away. Because teachers can figure out anything when you discipline and send kids off, by who talks badly about you walking away. The kid who talks badly about you has the social power. The kids who are agreeing with that person are the bystanders who are agreeing with the bully. And the kids who don't say anything are either the victim or the silent bystanders who want to do something but can't. The other part is that she waits to see if she can find that one kid, that target. She says: "Can I talk to you for a second?" She maybe even fibs, and says, "Come here and help me with something." Then she says: "I saw that thing in the hallway, I'm not sure if that was OK or not, but you can always talk to me." There might not be the hallmark moment right then. But he knows that [she sees him]. In the classroom, what does she do? She says to any kind of, "You're so gay," "You're so retarded" [that] comes up, she says: "If you use those words to put somebody down, is not acceptable." She moves on. If a kid comes to her with a problem, she doesn't say what adults almost always say, which is, "Just ignore it," "You're going to be stronger for getting through the process," "They didn't really mean it that way," "Be the better person." What she says is: "I'm really sorry this happened to you, thank you for telling me. We're going to figure this out. If you tell me something that is too much for me to handle on my own, that I don't know, we're going to think of who is the counselor who can help you, because I'm the bridge, I'm not the counselor, but I'm the bridge to getting you the help that you need." Now, it can't all be on the teacher's shoulders. So, there are two things that I want to really emphasize for people who are in positions of leadership in schools. Number one, when things are really bad in that teachers' room, and that we have a target who feels unsafe, one of the things we've consistently done in schools, just like in that hallway to reinforce the bully's power, is [that] we move and control the motions and movements of the victim. So, if you are the victim, and you feel unsafe, five minutes before class begins there's a knock on the door, and your school resource officer, or the counselor, comes and gets you out of class and takes you to your next class. Because we're focused, with good intention, on trying to protect the target. But when we do this, we reinforce the power of the bully. If anybody is going to be controlled it is the movement of the bully. So, an adult who will treat the bully with dignity, knocks on the door five minutes before class is to end, and says: "Come with me, we're going to your next class." So, not only is the victim safe but that all of the other kids realize that the adults are competent at handling this complex, difficult problem. The second thing that I think administrators need to do is that when you walk into a school, --and I'd ask you to do this the next time you're in a high school-- is see who is represented in the hallway. Because in most schools, what you'll see, are these vicious, horrible mascots, like the panthers, and the jaguars, and they're reaching out to destroy you, right? OK. Also, there are pictures of championship sports teams, trophies line the walls. I was at a high school like this two days ago. If there's anything else, there's the marching band trophies in the corner, but that's helping out the athletic guys, right? There's nothing wrong at all with celebrating athletic achievement but all children need to be represented in the public space of the school. If a child walks in, I mean into the school, underneath those pictures of kids, who are bullying them, the school is saying, in the unwritten rules of the school, of the culture and climate, who matters. If you're bullied by kids like these, if they go after you for who you are, your race, you ethnicity, your sexual orientation, your gender, if you go up against one of these kids, you will lose. That is what we say when we celebrate only certain children on the walls of the school. I work at a school called Potomac Falls High School, in Virginia. One of the reasons why I knew I liked this school is because when I walked in there was a huge picture of the championship basketball team, next to a huge, equally prominent-placed picture of the theater kids, of the debate kids, of all different kinds of kids. I knew this was a good school. And this Is a school that deals with different problems, just like every other school in the country does. So, when we do this, when we educate, no matter what we're doing, 21st century learning, technology, teaching engineering, School has always been about understanding our rights and responsibilities with the social contract of each other. It has always been about understanding how to create civil discourse and democratic principles, that our children literally embody and learn, and then they can take that into the world. That is what it has always been about. So, what I'm asking all of us to do is to step in. I'm asking us that there are things at stake here that are so large, from a child who feels safe walking into a school, to feeling there are adults in their life who care and are competent to help them and advocate for them. When children know that we are there for them, --and we don't need to know about the social abyss of teenage cruelty-- that we care enough to understand the power of those dynamics, and that we will step in when it is necessary, our children will meet us more than half way. They will engage, they will care, they will think that we know what we are doing, they'll trust us to take leaps and risks of faith, to do new things, try new things, and to reach out when they need help. Often, one of the things we say to kids is, "You're our future." But what I want to ask all of us is to recognize that we are their here and now. And when that happens, when we really think about that, as teachers and parents and administrators in kids, people who care deeply about our communities, our schools can be the place that, for all of us, deserve to be.

Early life

Wiseman was born to a Jewish family[3] in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Gertrude Leah (née Kotzen) and Jacob Leo Wiseman.[citation needed] He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Williams College in 1951, and a Bachelor of Laws from Yale Law School in 1954. He spent 1954 to 1956 serving in the U.S. Army after being drafted.[4] Wiseman spent the following two years in Paris, France before returning to the United States, where he took a job teaching law at the Boston University Institute of Law and Medicine. He then started documentary filmmaking, and has won numerous film awards as well as Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships.[5][6]


The first feature-length film Wiseman produced was The Cool World (1963). This was followed by Titicut Follies in 1967, which he produced and directed. He has both produced and directed all of his films since. They are chiefly studies of social institutions, such as hospitals, high schools, or police departments. All his films have aired on PBS, one of his primary funders.

Wiseman's films are often described as in the observational mode, which has its roots in direct cinema, but Wiseman dislikes the term:

What I try to do is edit the films so that they will have a dramatic structure. That is why I object to some extent to the term "observational cinema" or cinéma vérité, because observational cinema, to me at least, connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another, and that is not true. At least, that is not true for me, and cinéma verité is just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I'm concerned.

Wiseman has been known to call his films "Reality Fictions".[6]


Wiseman at Kansas State University in 1971

Wiseman's films are, in his view, elaborations of a personal experience and not ideologically objective portraits of his subjects.

In interviews, Wiseman has emphasized that his films are not and cannot be unbiased. In spite of the inescapable bias that is introduced in the process of "making a movie", he still feels he has certain ethical obligations as to how he portrays events:

[My films are] based on unstaged, un-manipulated actions... The editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative... What you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it... all of those things... represent subjective choices that you have to make. In [Belfast, Maine] I had 110 hours of material ... I only used 4 hours – near nothing. The compression within a sequence represents choice and then the way the sequences are arranged in relationship to the other represents choice.[6]
All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative. But the ethical ... aspect of it is that you have to ... try to make [a film that] is true to the spirit of your sense of what was going on. ... My view is that these films are biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed but fair. I think what I do is make movies that are not accurate in any objective sense, but accurate in the sense that I think they're a fair account of the experience I've had in making the movie.[7]
I think I have an obligation to the people who have consented to be in the film, ... to cut it so that it fairly represents what I felt was going on at the time in the original event.[8]

Process and style

Wiseman works four to six weeks in the institutions he portrays, with almost no preparation. He spends the bulk of the production period editing the material, trying to find a rhythm to make a movie.

Every Wiseman film has a dramatic structure, though not necessarily a narrative arc; his films rarely have what could be considered a distinct climax and conclusion. He likes to base his sequence structure with no particular thesis or point of view in mind.[9] Any suspense is on a per-scene level, not constructed from plot points, and there are no characters with whom the viewer is expected to identify. Nevertheless, Wiseman feels that drama is a crucial element for his films to "work as movies" (Poppy). The "rhythm and structure" (Wiseman) of Wiseman's films pull the viewer into the position and perspective of the subject (human or otherwise). The viewer feels the dramatic tension of the situations portrayed, as various environmental forces create complicated situations and conflicting values for the subject.

Wiseman openly admits to manipulating his source material to create dramatic structure, and indeed insists that it is necessary to "make a movie":

I'm trying to make a movie. A movie has to have dramatic sequence and structure. I don't have a very precise definition about what constitutes drama, but I'm gambling that I'm going to get dramatic episodes. Otherwise, it becomes Empire. ... 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.[10]

Wiseman has said that the structure of his films is important to the overall message:

Well, it's the structural aspect that interests me most, and the issue there is developing a theory that will relate these isolated, nonrelated sequences to each other. That is partially, I think, related to figuring out how it either contradicts or adds to or explains in some way some other sequence in the film. Then you try to determine the effect of a particular sequence on that point of view of the film.[11]

A distinctive aspect of Wiseman's style is the complete lack of exposition (narration), interaction (interviews), and reflection (revealing any of the filmmaking process). Wiseman has said that he does not "feel any need to document [his] experience" and that he feels that such reflexive elements in films are vain.[12]

While producing a film, Wiseman often acquires more than 100 hours of raw footage. His ability to create an engaging and interesting feature-length film without the use of voice-over, title cards, or motion graphics, while still being "fair", has been described as the reason Wiseman is seen as a true master of documentary film.

This great glop of material which represents the externally recorded memory of my experience of making the film is of necessity incomplete. The memories not preserved on film float somewhat in my mind as fragments available for recall, unavailable for inclusion but of great importance in the mining and shifting process known as editing. This editorial process ... is sometimes deductive, sometimes associational, sometimes non-logical and sometimes a failure... The crucial element for me is to try and think through my own relationship to the material by whatever combination of means is compatible. This involves a need to conduct a four-way conversation between myself, the sequence being worked on, my memory, and general values and experience.




In addition to his better known film work, Wiseman has also directed and been involved in theater, in the US and France.[14]

  • Emily Dickinson, La Belle d’Amherst (The Belle of Amherst) by William Luce. Le Théâtre Noir, Paris, Director, May–July, 2012[15]
  • Oh les beaux jours by Samuel Beckett. La Comédie Française, Paris. Director, November – January 2006; Director & Actor, Jan–March 2007.
  • The Last Letter an adaptation from the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
    • Theatre for a New Audience, New York. Director, December 2003
    • North American Tour with La Comédie Française production (Ottawa/Toronto, Canada; Cambridge/Springfield, MA; New York, NY; Chicago, IL) Director, May–June 2001
    • La Comédie Française, Paris. Director, March–April 2000, September–November, 2000
  • Welfare: The Opera, story by Frederick Wiseman and David Slavitt, libretto by David Slavitt, music by Lenny Pickett.
  • Hate by Joshua Goldstein. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Director, January 1991
  • Tonight We Improvise by Luigi Pirandello. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Director of video sequences and actor in role of documentary filmmaker, November 1986 – February 1987


In 2003, Wiseman received the Dan David Prize for his films.[16] In 2006, he received the George Polk Career Award, given annually by Long Island University to honor contributions to journalistic integrity and investigative reporting. In spring 2012, Wiseman actively took part in the three-month exposition of the Whitney Biennial.[17] In 2014, he was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 71st Venice International Film Festival.[18] In 2016, Wiseman received an Academy Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.[19]


  1. ^ Philippe Pilard (26 August 2012). "Frederick Wiseman, Chronicler of the Western World". La Sept/Arte. Archived from the original on 6 May 2017.
  2. ^ Scott, A.O.; Dargis, Manohla (6 April 2017). "Frederick Wiseman: The Filmmaker Who Shows Us Ourselves". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 17 April 2017. Retrieved 3 September 2017.
  3. ^ The Jewish news of Northern California: "The tribe goes to the Oscars" Archived 2019-03-31 at the Wayback Machine by Nate Bloom. February 13, 2017
  4. ^ Hynes, Eric (2022-07-11). "Frederick Wiseman - Journal". Metrograph. Retrieved 2023-09-13.
  5. ^ Frederick Wiseman (biography) Archived 2016-03-07 at the Wayback Machine, The New York Times, 20 December 2014
  6. ^ a b c Aftab and Weltz, Interview with Frederick Wiseman
  7. ^ Spotnitz, Frank (May 1991). "Dialogue on film". American Film. 16 (5): 16–21.
  8. ^ Poppy, Nick (30 January 2002). "Frederick Wiseman". Archived from the original on 15 January 2008.
  9. ^ Eric, Hynes. "Metrograph Edition". Metrograph. Archived from the original on 5 August 2020. Retrieved 30 April 2020.
  10. ^ Peary, Gerald (March 1998). "Frederick Wiseman". Archived from the original on 17 October 2007. Retrieved 12 November 2007.
  11. ^ Benson, Thomas (1980). "The Rhetorical Structure of Frederick Wiseman's High School". Communication Monographs. 47 (4): 234. doi:10.1080/03637758009376035.
  12. ^ Lucia, Cynthia (October 1994). "Revisiting High School – An interview with Frederick Wiseman". Cinéaste. 20 (4): 5–11.
  13. ^ Tartaglione, Nancy (July 25, 2023). "Venice Film Festival Lineup: Mann, Lanthimos, Fincher, DuVernay, Cooper, Besson, Coppola, Hamaguchi In Competition; Polanski, Allen, Anderson, Linklater Out Of Competition – Full List". Deadline. Retrieved July 25, 2023.
  14. ^ "News & Events". Archived from the original on 6 May 2017. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
  15. ^ Philippe Pilard. "Frederick Wiseman, Chronicler of the Western World". La Sept/Arte. Archived from the original on 20 September 2015. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
  16. ^ "Laureates 2003". Tel Aviv University. Archived from the original on 30 October 2020. Retrieved 4 November 2015.
  17. ^ Roberta Smith (1 March 2012). "A Survey of a Different Color 2012 Whitney Biennial". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 6 October 2018. Retrieved 5 March 2012.
  18. ^ "Thelma Schoonmaker and Frederick Wiseman Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement". labiennale. Archived from the original on 3 September 2014.
  19. ^ "Frederick Wiseman". | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 2016-11-03. Retrieved 2022-06-06.


  • Aftab, Kaleem Aftab; Alexandra Weltz "Frederick Wiseman" (Interview) on
  • Wiseman, Frederick (April 1994). "Editing as a four-way conversation". Dox: Documentary Film Quarterly. 1: 4–6.

Further reading

External links

This page was last edited on 13 September 2023, at 16:55
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