Behind Closed Doors: Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies
By Adam Cook
On June 13th, we’re screening Frederick Wiseman’s breakthrough masterpiece Titicut Follies to honour its 50th anniversary. In the five decades following this film’s controversial release—more on that later—Wiseman has spent his prolific career peeking into American institutions, and picking them apart, but not with the tactlessness we’re conditioned to expect in the documentary form, where personalities guide us through their biases in entertaining fashion, but with a patient, careful gaze that reveals truths precisely because of its distance rather than in spite of it.
Without preconceived notions at the outset, Wiseman likes to observe and to form an opinion, and to offer his “thoughts” through his choice of shots and sequencing. It’s all in the editing. Wiseman speaks loudly through his films, just not with words. In Titicut Follies, there’s no mistaking his opinion of the grotesque mistreatment of patients at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane. Granted unprecedented permission to film inside the hospital, Wiseman found inhumane practices that robbed the dignity of the inmates. Abuse, humiliation, degradation. In exposing this one institution, Wiseman exposed what such places were willing to do behind closed doors all over the U.S. (and surely elsewhere).
At first, the film was banned. Wiseman was deemed guilty of violating the patients’ privacy—ironic, considering his intent. In 1969, two years after the film was finished, he was granted permission to show it to relevant members of the field only. It wasn’t until 1991 that the film was allowed to be shown to the public legally, and was televised on PBS in 1992. It has since gone on to be considered among the top tier of documentaries, and is cited as one of Wiseman’s greatest achievements, although many of his films are deserving of such praise including several of his recent works (Crazy Horse, In Jackson Heights).
It’s a difficult film to watch, and it’s not an incorrect instinct to glance away from particular moments in which the people on camera are being debased. But Titicut Follies exemplifies one of cinema’s noblest possibilities, to show us what we otherwise would not see, to reveal. The humanism driving the film in spite of the lack of humanity it captures instill the film with a tragic irony. How is a society willing to treat its less valued citizens? Wiseman shows us, and it’s terrifying, serving as an important reminder that our worst crimes can easily occur within the boundaries of our society.