Fred Wiseman, Titicut Follies

Titicut Follies occupies a unique position in American film history: it is the only American film whose use has court-imposed restrictions for reasons other than obscenity or national security.” (Anderson & Benson 1991, p 4)

This is probably one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. It is also one of the most successful and powerful documentaries I have ever seen. Its strength lies in the fact that it is shot head on; there is no narrative, and no explanation (this was deliberate, apparently, though there later appeared to be some dispute over whether such contextual subtitles or narration were in fact called for or would detract from the film’s impact – ibid, p 34). Just the events as they happened. The camera approaches the cold kino glaz of Vertov, and although in some of the shots the inmates appear to be performing for the camera (or at least they show an awareness of the cameraman’s presence), at no times does it feel staged or contrived. Although Wiseman refers to his films as reality fictions, this is probably more of an attempt to disclaim any responsibility for representing social actuality as objective reality, although the term also implies artistic freedom and the value of the artist’s input or interpretation (this is similar to Jean Rouch’s ethnofictions, which I analysed during the last module – although grounded on real events, the insertion of the word fiction in both terms reminds us that this is the director’s understanding and representation of the events); the Griersonian creative treatment of actuality: “One works from social actuality but necessarily imposes form upon that actuality, turning it into what may be implied by the terms art or fiction“. (ibid 1991, p 1)

The film cuts between footage shot at an entertainment show or cabaret evening put on by the staff and inmates of the asylum (the Follies of the title) and the day to day happenings at the institution. So we are presented with smiling, singing faces and then a man being interrogated by a chain-smoking (Hungarian?) doctor about his sexual deviancy involving minors (Patient: I need help, I just don’t know where I can get it Doctor: Well, you’ll get it here, I guess…) or men being herded, stripped naked and searched – visions of Auschwitz springing to mind.


The film is brutally honest in the sense that we see everything – there are no punches pulled, and some of the shots go on for longer than is comfortable: this is another secret of Wiseman’s exposure of the suffering, that where a more ‘sensitive’ director or editor would only show a few seconds, Wiseman keeps filming (or does not edit short on the cutting board) and shows the entire procedure, or an event played out until it begins to feel excruciating. In a kind of Kafkaesque sequence, we see an inmate pleading his case: that he was only admitted for observation and has since not been allowed to leave, and that the conditions in the asylum are quite literally driving him insane. First he appeals to the doctor and then in front of a panel, who eventually decide that he is overly emotional and should have his medication increased. One gets the nightmarish feeling that he will never be allowed to leave. In another sequence an emaciated man is being force-fed through the nose. One of the staff members is sent to look for lubricant which has obviously run out, but in his absence the Eastern-European doctor, cigarette in mouth, inserts the tube anyway! The next shot shows what appears to be the same inmate’s body being embalmed in the morgue. (According to Anderson & Benson, “Doctors who were marginal within their own profession often provided treatment in such institutions. In the mid-sixties, Bridgewater used the services of foreign physicians practising on partial licenses.Ibid 1991, p 10)


Some of the scenes show taunting or bullying by members of staff, despite the fact that they are aware of the camera’s presence. This obviously means that not only did they not see anything essentially wrong in what they were doing, but also that a viewing public would also share the same position (Sontag points out that even the Nazis did not allow themselves to be filmed committing atrocities, which seems to allude to the fact that they knew what they were doing was wrong, whereas the Abu Ghraib images are closer in essence to the postcards of lynchings that show people gathered around with smiling faces, making no attempt to hide their identities since they knew the actions would not be punished or condemned by the larger public).

In the final sequence, the chaplain administers the last rites to an inmate, and we then see a body unceremoniously removed from the morgue and buried in the institution’s cemetery, in a ceremony attended only by other inmates and staff. What strikes one about this sequence is the disinterestedness of the chaplain, as if he has other (better?) things to do. Throwing a handful of earth across the top of the coffin he matter-of-factly intones: “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return. That’s all.” We are left to contemplate the value of a man’s life.

Throughout the film we get glimpses of the institutional staff, particularly the superintendent. Since he considers himself something of a performer, most of the shots in which he appears he is either singing or dancing or both. He is shown a rather grotesque way, especially the close ups of his mouth when he is singing, and one begins to wonder whether the inmates or the staff who are in need of psychiatric help – a phenomenon Wiseman explored further in his film Primate (1974)! The film certainly makes you wonder how many inmates were in fact driven to insanity by the mediaeval dungeon-like conditions in the cells (the inmates are without clothes or furniture, bare walls with light entering through small barred windows).


One important issue that has come up for me in investigating this film is the legal aspect. The film was not shown for many years since it was deemed to infringe on the privacy rights of the subjects. Although Wiseman thought that he had that covered by receiving permission from their legal guardian, the superintendant of the facility, Massachusetts legislators believed otherwise and had the film banned. I think I need to really look into getting release forms signed by all the participants of my project. I will do this when the final images that are to be included in the work are decided upon.

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