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Silverdocs Documentary FF

Online Dailies Coverage of SILVERDOCS: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival taking place June 21-27, 2010 at the AFI Silver Theater


Honoring A Documentary Master


At a film festival devoted to non-fiction works from around the world, the presence of a true documentary master is cause for celebration. Such was the atmosphere on Wednesday evening at the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival, which honored documentary pioneer Frederick Wiseman with its annual Guggenheim Symposium (the Festival's equivalent of a career achievement award).

Wiseman, who has been making controversial and thought-provoking films since the 1960s, is one of the genre's most celebrated "cinema verite" odd term perhaps, since the very notion of an unobstructed eye on what is coined "real life". However, Wiseman has always been able to add a lyrical poetry to his wide range of subjects....everyone from doctors to soldiers, ballet dancer to factory workers, Benedictine monks to fashion models. Each portrait offered a striking meditation on the grandeur and hypocrisy of American life.

At the presentation at the cavernous AFI Silver Theater, the Festival's main screenving venue, a specially prepared clip reel of highlights from his 50 year career was presented, with frequent bursts of applause from the appreciative and enthusiastic audience. Following the montage, the great man himself, a spry 80 year old, was joined on stage by Oscar winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH) for an engaging discussion of Wiseman's life, career and legacy.

Frederick Wiseman was born in Boston, Massachussets on January 1, 1930. While he was fascinated with films as a child during the Great Depression, he trained as a lawyer. His legal career did not completely satisfy him, so he began to drift into film, first working as a producer. His first feature film as a producer was the seminal American indie film THE COOL WORD, directed by Shirley Clarke in 1963. His next project, for which he served as both producer and director, remains his most infamous.

After he had read about a local school for mentally challenged people, he decided to make that the subject of his directorial debut. It was a commissioned film by the state mental health department, which had hired the rookie director to make a flattering portrait of institutional uplift. What resulted was TITTICUT FOLLIES (1967), which revealed the neglect, abuse and subjugation of his subjects that produced a flurry of negative press and criticism. The film was subsequently banned in the state of Massachussets for nearly 30 years.

With the notoreity surrounding his debut, Wiseman began a life-long obsession with public and private institutions, revealing how systems that were set up to help people many times disenfranchised and exploited them. In HIGH SCHOOL (1968), Wiseman brought his eagle eye to the cut-throat world of teenagers and the hapless teachers who were too overwhelmed to intervene. In HOSPITAL (1970), he presciently looked at the shortcoming of the health care system. In BASIC TRAINING (1971), he told the  story of young recruits en route to the ravages of war in Vietnam.

WELFARE (1975) skewered the American welfare system, saving its barbs for both the administrators and the people who collected money by gaming the system. In a change of pace, MODEL (1980) looked at the fast-paced world of the fashion industry and revealed the American obsession with impossible beauty. In BLIND (1987), he explored the dignity and strength of young blind pupils at an Alabama specialty school. He has also offered glittering portraits of the ballet and theatrical worlds that balance beauty and cruelty in equal measure.

Although considered "cinema verite" (in other words, truth via film), Wiseman has always stressed that his films were mediated experienced, where he as a filmmaker molded the material for his viewers. "What I try to do is edit the films so that they will have a dramatic structure", Wiseman explained in a recent interview. "That is why I object to the term observational cinema or cinema verité, because observational cinema to me at least connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another and that is not true."

Wiseman, whose films have been seen mainly on public television, has won numerous film awards, as well as the prestigious Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. In 2003, he was Wiseman was awarded the  Dan David Prize for his outstanding career. In 2006, Wiseman received the  George Polk Career Award, which honors contributions to journalistic integrity and investigative reporting. He now has the Silverdocs  tribute to add to his accomplishments as a documentary master.

Sandy Mandelberger, Festival Dailies Editor


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About Silverdocs Documentary FF

Sandy Mandelberger
(International Media Resources)

Online Dailies Coverage of SILVERDOCS: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, taking place at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland from June 21 to 27, 2010.

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