12/03/2007 09:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

On DVD at Last: The Films of Frederick Wiseman

I was a cinema major at San Francisco State College when, in November 1967, my Film Theory professor, Ernest Callenbach, showed us a recently released cinéma vérité documentary directed by a friend of his, Frederick Wiseman, called Titicut Follies. For those unfamiliar with cinéma vérité, it is a form of documentary without narration or interviews. The filmmaker records real-life (as opposed to the manipulated reality of "reality TV") and then edits the footage into a final product. Titicut Follies documents life inside the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Two months after I saw it, the film was banned by Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court and was unavailable for viewing by the general public for 22 years. In the notes I took the day of the class showing, I wrote, "The sickest people of all were some of the psychiatrists and maybe a guard or two. The need for reform was painfully evident."

Frederick Wiseman went on to document real life in 34 other cinéma vérité works with titles like High School, Welfare, Ballet, Meat, Model, Race Track and Domestic Violence. These films were occasionally shown on PBS or at special screenings on university or high school campuses, but Mr. Wiseman never made them available on VHS or DVD...until now. Happily, he has just released 23 of his films on DVD, including his latest, State Legislature, which shows the Idaho Legislature at work.

Like most people, when I watch a film I look for the good guys and the bad guys. When I first saw Titicut Follies 40 years ago, I regarded some of the guards and administrators as the bullies and the inmates as the victims. Indeed, there is one painful sequence in which two guards bully, taunt and slap a naked prisoner. Viewing the film now, I see that Wiseman, despite this sequence, shows us that life is not as black and white as we would like it to be, and that most people, in their daily lives, are simply doing the best that they know how. In Titicut Follies, Wiseman makes this point early on by introducing us to a new inmate who is being interviewed by the staff psychiatrist. The inmate is a humbled young man who turns out to be a sexual predator with a penchant for 11-year-old girls. He tells the psychiatrist that he can't help himself and he thinks it would be best if they locked him up and never let him out.

What most shocked those who were able to see Titicut Follies before it was banned was that so many of the prisoners were kept naked. These are deeply disturbed men whom the authorities are treating like animals. But the guards have a reasonable explanation (from their point of view) as to why it is necessary to keep the prisoners naked. These prisoners are incontinent, and the guards are tired and disgusted by having to strip off the prisoners' clothes every day and wash them. When the prisoners are kept naked, the guards only need to hose down a prisoner and his cell to keep them clean. Obviously, I do not support this practice, but it was startling to realize that the guards were motivated by something other than pure sadism.

Most of Frederick Wiseman's films are not nearly as shocking as Titicut Follies, but they are fascinating. I urge anyone who is interested in documentaries or who is just interested in real life, rather than what passes for reality on television, to check out Mr. Wiseman's work. His films can now be purchased from Zipporah Films.