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Untitled Document

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman in residence at Townsend Center

19 March 2003


film still

A still from the 1985 Frederick Wiseman documentary Racetrack, which chronicles life at the Belmont Racetrack in New York. It is one of several Wiseman films to be shown at the Pacific Film Archive between March 31 and April 14.

“There’s no reason a documentary film shouldn’t be as complex and subtle as a good novel,” says Frederick Wiseman, one of America’s greatest documentary filmmakers. A practitioner of what he calls “reality fictions,” Wiseman eschews traditional documentary devices — such as voice-over narrative, music, and interviews — in favor of a spare, verité approach.

During his 36 years in the business, Wiseman has trained his camera on numerous American institutions — mental hospitals, the courtroom, slaughterhouses, and welfare offices — and their impact upon individuals and groups.

For example, in Near Death (1989), he chronicles the complex relationships between people facing death and those who care for them by filming the goings-on in an intensive-care unit. The women in Domestic Violence (2001) pour out their terrible stories to counselors at a shelter in Florida — but, despite heroic efforts, many are unable to break the cycle of abuse.
Wiseman’s films are not journalistic exposés, but rather unflinching and emotional recordings of everyday life in these arenas. By presenting these stark, matter-of-fact images, Wiseman — who readily admits his films aren’t objective — hopes to prompt viewers to form opinions and make decisions about the situations presented.

The campus community can learn more about Wiseman’s technique when the filmmaker visits Berkeley (as a Townsend Center for the Humanities Una Lecturer) in first week of April. He’ll present two lectures: “The Making and Reading of a Documentary” at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 2, in Wheeler Auditorium, and “Enthography and Film” at 4 p.m, Thursday, April 3, in 220 Stephens Hall.

The Pacific Film Archive is also showing 16 of his documentaries between March 31 and April 14. Wiseman will be in attendance during two of the screenings: Meat at 3 p.m., Monday, March 31, and The Last Letter, which makes its Bay Area premiere at 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 4.

For information about Wiseman’s residency, call 643-9670. For a complete schedule of PFA screenings, visit www.bampfa.berkeley.edu or call 642-1124.