Fred Wiseman—objectively speaking…

Documentary legend and Boston native Frederick Wiseman spoke at Radcliffe College in Cambridge tonight, just a mile or so from Northern Light. While non-fiction filmmaking progressed (or regressed, depending on your point of view) from 60s-era Direct Cinema to Ken Burns-style historical epics to today’s cable TV diet of shark attacks and serial killers, Fred has quietly continued making his trademark films on American public institutions—hospitals, military units, high schools, etc—utilizing the fly-on-the-wall approach he helped pioneer.

But don’t call it Cinema Verité!

“What I try to do is edit the films so that they have a dramatic structure.That is why I object to some extent to the term observational cinema or Cinema Verité, because observational cinema to me connotes just hanging around, with one thing being as valuable as another, and that is not true. At least it’s not true for me.And Cinema Verité is just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I’m concerned.”

Those are Fred’s words on the subject, which he more or less reiterated tonight.Going along with it was his assertion that “objective filmmaking” is an oxy-moron, and that “documentary is just another form of fiction.”All this from one of the founding fathers of Verité, whose work is perhaps more associated with objectivity than any other filmmaker in history!

It was good, sobering food for thought.Here at Northern Light we would never claim our work to be entirely objective or without bias, as much as we might try to make it so.Films are made by human beings who all interpret reality through a different lens.We can only aspire to be fair.We can only make a concerted, systematic effort to consider multiple interpretations, then present “reality” the way we see it, including as many of those viewpoints as possible.

For his part, Fred was a lot more interested in talking shop tonight than discussing abstract notions of objectivity or the common good.His passion was clearly in his craft.A lot of the questions from the audience aimed to get his take on the state of documentary or of public television today.He politely side-stepped most of these questions; although he might have addressed them indirectly, later, when he responded to a question about the “digital revolution” in filmmaking:

“The only thing I see coming out of the “digital revolution” is a greater number of lousy films!”

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