frederick wiseman

Frederick Wiseman talks “Titicut Follies”

The documentary master visits Portland this week to screen his 1967 debut, a scathing portrait of life in a Massachusetts mental hospital

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s been the mantra of documentary filmmaking legend Frederick Wiseman for a half-century now.

On Thursday, April 21, the Northwest Film Center will host Wiseman for a 35mm screening of his first feature, 1967’s notorious “Titicut Follies.” Filmed inside the Bridgewater (Massachusetts) State Hospital for the criminally insane, it unflinchingly depicted abuses that included forced nudity and force-feeding of inmates. It was a landmark of both observational, “direct cinema” style and led to legislative reforms, but was difficult if not impossible to screen for decades after its making.

Wiseman has gone on to make another forty documentaries, almost all of which explore some sort of institution (“Public Housing,” “Hospital,” “National Gallery”) using the same basic technique as his first. His latest film, 2015’s “In Jackson Heights,” is a testament to the remarkably diverse New York neighborhood of its title.

The 86-year-old Wiseman shows no signs of slowing. He took the time to call during a Sunday layover in a Washington, D.C. airport, on his way to Chicago. We talked about his upcoming visit to Portland, his time-tested methods, and the legacy of “Titicut Follies.”

A scene from "Titicut Follies." © 1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc. Photo provided courtesy of Zipporah Films.

A scene from “Titicut Follies.” © 1967 Bridgewater Film Company, Inc. Photo provided courtesy of Zipporah Films.

OAW: First of all, thanks for taking time out of what sounds like a busy travel schedule to speak with me.

FW: Happy to do it.

OAW: “Titicut Follies” was shot fifty years ago. What prompts you to continue to travel around and discuss it?

FW: They wanted to show it. They knew I was going to be in Portland. So I agreed to talk afterwards. I was pleased to be invited. I had been thinking about visiting, and they had wanted to have me out there for a while, so the interests coincided.

OAW: Is it at all surreal to look back on a film you made that long ago and realize its continued impact and influence?