Friday, May 29, 2009

DOXA Preview: Frederick Wiseman's Welfare

All stills from Frederick Wiseman's film Welfare provided by Zipporah

I met Frederick Wiseman - seeming wry, patient and slightly tired - when he introduced a screening of his first, most famous, and most controversial film, 1967's Titicut Follies, last year at the Pacific Cinematheque. The first of many films of his to query American social institutions, Titicut Follies deals with the horrifying conditions at Bridgewater State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts, which are presented in black and white, with no narration and no direct address of the camera, as is the case with all of Wiseman's documentaries. It has moments that are very difficult to watch - like the forced feeding of an unresponsive patient by stuffing a tube up his nose, images of which are intercut with footage from the same patient's subsequent funeral; patients being made to strip or to answer extremely personal questions by highly clinical doctors; being teased in the bath and hectored by the somewhat hardened staff; and so forth. These images all leave the viewer squirming, as do the unheeded protestations of a very rational-seeming patient that he is in the wrong place and that being in the institution is making him worse. Scenes of guards taunting a naked male patient, Jim, who stomps about in his cell with genitals dangling, led to accusations of invasion of privacy, and complex conditions were placed on screenings of the film that limited access to it for years. It is one of the most confrontational of Wiseman's films - and the one where his criticisms of the institution in question seem most damning - so it's no real wonder it garnered a strong reaction, though it is hard to fathom how it could be suppressed because of matters of privacy - a strange decision, to say the least.
I rather wasted an opportunity to talk with Mr. Wiseman when he was here, alas: a friend had asked me to see if there were any way to acquire a cheaper copy of the Titicut Follies DVD than was sold on Wiseman's website, Zipporah Films (Wiseman, like my cinematic hero John Cassavetes, has taken to distributing his own work). My brief chat with him was concerned primarily with this relayed request, with the director remarking, somewhat scandalized, that the price was "only $34.95!" - a reasonable price. Indeed, the DVDs on his site - his entire documentary output is now available on DVD, I believe - are a very good value, given their richness (though a few are available at Videomatica and perhaps Happy Bats and Black Dog, if you'd prefer to rent).
While Wiseman's later films are less polemical in tone than Titicut Follies, they are all extremely revealing and willing to look at things we most often shy away from, from the conditions affecting workers and livestock in slaughterhouses, in Meat, to the horrors of high school - one of the most lied-about and cinematically misrepresented aspects of North American life. Since I am only a recent convert to Frederick Wiseman's cinema (having viewed four of his films to completion), I cannot write authoritatively about his work, but I would like to attempt to explain briefly why Welfare, screening Saturday at the Vancity as part of DOXA should count as essential viewing for at least some of my readers.

It may not be readily apparent why this should be so. If you've stood in line at a welfare queue - and I have, at a very different time in my life - you know how demoralizing it is, how frustrating the bureaucracy attached to the application process can be, and how humiliating and maddening the rather disdainful attitude of the staff is at such offices - people whose capacity for kindness and even civility has, in many cases, been thoroughly burned out of them by incessant exposure to rude, hostile, dishonest, depressed and/or debased examples of the human species. You may not feel the need to experience the same for three hours in a movie theatre, especially if we note that applying for welfare benefits in BC is like being pampered and massaged at a spa, when compared to the experience of applying for said benefits in New York in the early 1970's, when this film was shot. Indeed, unlike here - where, after a certain amount of humiliation and self-disclosure one eventually does get funds, however meagre - one gets the impression that at Manhattan's Waverly Welfare Centre, people are only ever shuffled about from one department or address to the next, invited to testify at a "fair hearing," denied their claims because of some odd Catch-22 or technicality, or told to come back on Monday. Indeed, throughout Welfare, though there is talk of cutting cheques for a few of the many applicants we see, the only concrete "benefit" that I recall seeing anyone receive in the film is the water from a drinking fountain where an old lady pops her meds. The term "Kafkaesque" tends to appear in descriptions of the way the office runs in the film, for good reason.
It is precisely the strong emotions that the process of applying for such forms of assistance tends to invoke that make watching Wiseman's Welfare as rewarding as it is, however. There is no way, in life, to be objective about so unpleasant an experience as applying for state aid, especially when one is observing it from within. The applicants are likely either humiliated or defensive; the workers bored or apprehensive; and the general attitude of distaste for such circumstances (where some must debase themselves by asking for help, and others by the nature of their job must sometimes be "unkind" and refuse it) makes all concerned want to get through transactions as quickly and easily as possible, without having to grapple too much with things one would rather not see, feel, or acknowledge. There is little opportunity to be a "fly on the wall" in such offices, little opportunity to sit and watch the human dynamics at work at any length, let alone to abstract from them. Imagine being able to spend three hours at a welfare office, invisibly observing - without any need to account for yourself or interact with anyone there, so that you could comfortably reflect on the human behaviour you behold, without having to shield anyone from embarrassment or reaction. This is something like the experience that Welfare offers its viewers - one I found compelling and rewarding.
This is not to say that Welfare is somehow an "objective" representation of the reality of what transpires at a welfare office, however; though it is not a simple matter - Wiseman has said, "I don’t like to hit people over the head with a message, because if I could say what the point of view of the film is in 25 words or less, I shouldn’t make the film" - he does have a point of view, and his filmmaking reflects that. For the most part - with the exception of a confrontation between a white racist and several black police officers - Wiseman appears to be thoroughly allied with the applicants; even in the case of one couple, who appear to be "working the system" (being caught in a couple of lies and obfuscations during an interview), the fact that they may be hustling for money they really don't need or deserve doesn't outrage him or us (or indeed the worker interviewing them, who, one senses, is "on to them," but doesn't much mind, since their papers are in order). In fact, this young couple creates one of the strongest narrative threads that guides us through the film, being shown at least four times - during their initial "hustle"/interview near the beginning of the film, where they are promised a cheque and told to visit a different floor of the building; once about fifteen minutes later, apparently looking for the office where they are supposed to go; again after another hour or so has elapsed, waiting, bored and listless; and again, at the end of the film - still waiting, having received nothing for their efforts, which is how the film leaves them.
My hope had been to get a couple of questions answered by Mr. Wiseman, whose current shooting schedule (he is making a new film in Europe) did not allow him to answer in time; primary among them, I was curious to what extent he manipulated his material when editing Welfare, just to get a concrete sense of his method. The appearance of this couple "popping up" throughout the film produces the effect that everything we are seeing is shot in one day, and that events we've seen have transpired more or less in real-time, as we watched; in fact, the film (or so I read in 5 Films By Frederick Wiseman, in the introduction to the transcript of that movie) was shot over a four week period. It seems reasonable to assume that the footage of this young couple was all filmed on the same day, but then rearranged and intercut with material filmed at other times, to produce the time structure that is presented to the viewer (which would thus be completely artificial - an artefact of Wiseman's editing choices). Such manipulations seem well within the range of Wiseman's apparent methodology as an artist; he has said that his films are "based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions," but that "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... 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." (Quoted in the Wikipedia article on Wiseman, from Nick Poppy's Salon interview with him.)
What we have, then, in Welfare, is not merely a "document" of a day at a welfare office, but a subtle, perceptive, and rich work of art, drawing on real footage to express the artist's perception of the same. It may not be the best film to start ones relationship with the cinema of Frederick Wiseman - I'd recommend Titicut Follies, for that purpose, because it's such a striking and powerful debut - but the opportunity to see it screened is valuable indeed, and one that anyone unfamiliar with the work of Wiseman should take advantage of. It screens Saturday, May 30th -tomorrow - at the Vancity Theatre at 2:30 PM.
Thanks to the staff at Zipporah for their assistance with this article. Note, also, that if you missed out on seeing any films at DOXA, there will be screenings of festival favourites on Sunday - I believe one can check their website for more.

Frederick Wiseman, provided by Zipporah.

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