Nov. 4, 1999
Vol. 19 No. 4

current issue
archive / search

    [frederick wiseman]
    Frederick Wiseman

    American documentary filmmaker will receive Rosenberger

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman will receive the University’s Rosenberger Medal for his extraordinary contributions to the art of documentary filmmaking.

    The University’s Committee on Awards and Prizes, which selected Wiseman, wrote in a letter of nomination that he “is one of the few practicing figures in the arts whose work is also intellectually rigorous, and he is one of the most acute observers of American social life whose films have been aesthetically path-breaking and uncompromising.”

    President Sonnenschein will bestow the award on Wiseman during a private dinner and ceremony Monday, Nov. 8. Following the ceremony, Doc Films Group will host a public screening of Wiseman’s documentary High School (1968) at 8:30 p.m. in Max Palevsky Cinema. Wiseman will stay for an informal question-and-answer session after the film.

    “Wiseman’s work has consistently changed not only our understanding of the functioning of key American institutions such as education, mental health or legal reform but also our sense of the possibilities of the documentary form,” said Miriam Hansen, the Ferdinand Schevill Distinguished Service Professor in Humanities.

    Hansen described a section of Wiseman’s first film, Titicut Follies (1967), in which the filmmaker intercuts shots of a mortician very carefully preparing a corpse with shots of an inmate receiving a violent haircut from a prison employee at the Massachusetts State Prison for the Criminally Insane.

    “Wiseman allows the subjects to speak for themselves, with no voice-over narration, and it is amazing what he captures when he turns on his camera and patiently waits for his subjects to demonstrate their words and behaviors,” said Hansen. “But we must remember the strong, formal organization Wiseman gives to his films through his editing, such as his crosscutting between the haircut and the mortician in Titicut Follies.”

    Hansen said that while Wiseman shoots his work in the cinema-verite style (with lightweight, handheld equipment), he does not pretend to show his audience “reality pure and simple;” but rather, his work is “just as mediated and constructed as the institutions they depict.”

    The subjects of Wiseman’s 31 films are wide-ranging, including such American institutions as those depicted in the films Juvenile Court (1973), Racetrack (1983) and Zoo (1993).

    “My goal is to make as many films as possible about different aspects of American life,” Wiseman told the Boston Phoenix. “When my technique works, the audience becomes involved because they are placed in the middle of the sequences and are asked to think through their relationship to what they are seeing and hearing.”

    This will be Wiseman’s first visit to campus, but his work is not unfamiliar to the University or the city of Chicago. Doc Films regularly screens Wiseman’s films on campus and the Smart Museum of Art played Titicut Follies as part of its 1995 exhibition “Madness in America: Cultural and Medical Perceptions of Mental Illness before 1914.”

    Wiseman’s 1997 film Public Housing depicts daily life in the Ida B. Wells housing development in Chicago. His latest work, Belfast, Maine, explores daily life in an old, New England port with emphasis on the residents’ work and the cultural life of the community. Belfast, Maine, is scheduled to air in February on the Public Broadcasting System, which has broadcast the majority of Wiseman’s films over the years.

    “I thought it would be highly appropriate for the University to honor a filmmaker whose work combines intellectual rigor, political passion and aesthetic complexity,” said Katie Trumpener, Associate Professor in Germanic Studies and the Committee on Cinema & Media Studies and the faculty member who initially suggested Wiseman for the award. “Together, his documentaries undertake a full-scale investigation of American institutions––and provide a scathing account of the way they buttress power relations.”

    The Rosenberger Medal was established in 1917 by alumni Mr. and Mrs. Jesse L. Rosenberger to recognize individuals whose work or creative efforts have been of great benefit to humanity.