For over 30 years Frederick Wiseman has trained his camera on American life and institutions, having no obvious polemical stance but merely observing, sometimes in minute detail, what he finds. He shoots for many hours, so that his subjects begin to ignore the camera, and edits the collected material for much longer. The surprise is that what he finds is often nothing like what we, or even he, might expect.
Some have criticised his even-handedness, remembering Titicut Follies, his first effort, about life in a prison for the criminally insane. That became mired in litigation with the state authorities and gave Wiseman the reputation of a controversial attacker of the system.
Thereafter, his films went less obvious ways, neither courting notoriety nor seeking to confirm or even deny expectations. Partly because of this, his work is of great value, almost as slices of the times we live in or, as he has called it, “a form of natural history”.
His masterpiece, perhaps, is Welfare, which looks at the New York benefits system from the point of view of the officials administering it and the claimants crowding their offices. The result is both mind-boggling and eye-opening. Mind-boggling because this is clearly a bureaucracy pitted against people least fit to deal with it; eye-opening because those running it are not inhuman and frequently do everything they can to help.
Any half-hour of this long film provides revelations, like the girl claimant who is told by her interviewer that he’s looking after two and a half million people and that if a couple of thousand don’t get what’s due them, he’s doing a good job. Or the German immigrant who says that God only helps you if he wants to and that, under the circumstances, “I’d better look for a nice place to hang myself.”
“Are you attending a clinic?” an officer asks a woman who says she’s been ill.
“Because I have no money,” comes the utterly logical riposte. And without a note from a doctor, she can’t get a dollar.
An ex-druggie who got himself work, an apartment and a dog, then lost everything but the dog, is told he can have a room in a hostel. He objects that he can’t take his dog there. But the official says: “We’re giving assistance to you, not your dog.”
“I don’t say it’s right,” says a man who admits stealing food. “I say it’s necessary. . . I’m waiting for something that will never come: justice.”
Every small tragedy is a large one for some people. Even the police who patrol the offices get involved. They are mostly black and there are racists about, but they keep their cool, even when told they breed like rabbits and will cause blood on the streets one day if they’re not wiped out first.
Throughout all this, Wiseman’s camera simply looks and records. It doesn’t have to do anything else. It’s the editing that’s important. We may see everything through his eyes, but we are at liberty to form our own opinions. David Thomson, the film critic and historian, disdains Wiseman’s neutrality, wishing him to be crazier or at any rate less guarded. We should, however, be grateful for his essential lack of bias. It’s one way to get at some sort of truth.