Despite his films having covered such topics as mental health, welfare, public housing, and the juvenile court system, documentarian Frederick Wiseman, whose works include “Boxing Gym,” “La Danse,” and “Crazy Horse,” doesn’t consider himself an activist.
“Most of the films … they’re not endorsing a particular point of view or a solution,” says Wiseman via Skype from his office in Paris, where he is in the finishing stages of his latest project, which is about the New York Public Library. “From my point of view, they’re dealing more with the complexity of the place. Since I don’t know what the solution is in many instances, I’m hesitant to subscribe to one in the film.”
Wiseman, recipient of a 2016 Honorary Oscar from the Academy, acknowledges that his approach is quite different from other documentary filmmakers whose movies usually feature interviews with subjects or experts and are meant to sway public opinion.
“I think my films all have distinct points of view, but … I don’t know any ideological explanation that explains the variety and complexity of human behavior,” he says.
Instead, Wiseman’s films benefit from his silence and, one would imagine, his patience, as he stands back and doesn’t interfere with the world he’s chronicling. Wiseman says this is simply his nature.
“I think I’m a reasonably observant person and I’m also quiet.”
“I started making these movies a few years after the psychological developments had been discovered that allowed you to film synchrosound documentaries without the camera and the tape recorder being attached by a cable,” he says. “That made filming much easier because you weren’t tripping all over each other so it opened up any subject as a possible film subject as long as there was enough light. It’s still true, but it’s certainly true when I started working in 1966 that there are several million good subjects.”
Wiseman doesn’t believe his films should be categorized in the style of cinema verite. “It’s a pompous French expression,” he says. But the 86-year-old director with more than 40 titles on his resume does believe that working helps with longevity.
“I know a lot of people who quit working and six months or a year later, they die,” he says. “Besides, I wouldn’t know what I would do if I wasn’t working. I like to work and, fortunately, I still can.”