Frederick Wiseman: the Art of Watchfulness
One of the great filmmakers of our times, Frederick Wiseman likes to remind us that his documentaries are films first and foremost. As a law professor, he’d take his students to observe American institutions with their own eyes instead of sitting in class at the university. His visits to the Bridgewater State Hospital led to his 1967 film Titicut Follies, the first in a body of work that now numbers over forty. Wiseman takes the same approach in most of his films, dissecting a specific place, whether a mental hospital, school or police station. “An institution provides a boundary like the lines of a tennis court. Whatever happens in the building or buildings of the institution or the geographical area that defines the subject of the film is fit for inclusion; anything outside is another film.”
From one film to the next, Wiseman paints a portrait of Western societies through these bounded spaces that order our lives, glossing over nothing: successes and failures, strengths and contradictions. With no preconceptions or pity toward his subjects, he gives equal weight to the words and presence of each person, from the humblest to the most distinguished. Yet this is never mere anecdote; in the deepest sense of the term, human experience in all its complexity — and its absurdity, given Wiseman’s sense of humour — is at the heart of his work.
While he keeps his distance, Wiseman isn’t content to “observe” his subjects: he alone makes the final choice of a “script” when shooting is finished. With no voiceover commentary, his films rely on the power of editing, featuring precise compositions intercut with footage chosen from hours of material. A random glance or gesture will reveal the reality hidden behind the words or the way people represent themselves, the way they play the roles they feel have been handed them.
This year, the RIDM and the Cinémathèque québécoise, in partnership with Hors Champ and the René-Malo Chair, will once again be screening a selection of his films in their original format, for the most part 16 mm. From the first to the last, the best known to the rarest, Wiseman’s films have been relevant to us for 40 years, insightfully showing real life while transforming it into cinema.
Member of the editorial committee of online magazine Hors Champ – www.horschamp.qc.ca
Helena Trestikova – Time Collection
One of the most important Czech documentary filmmakers, Helena Trestikova has directed some forty films since graduating from Prague’s FAMU film school in 1974. She worked for a long time in Czech television, which funded the hit series Marriage Stories (1987), seven-year portraits of young married couples. The series’ six episodes combined sociology, demography and cinéma-vérité, making the filmmaker very popular in her country. It was followed in 2006 by a second series, Marriage Stories 20 Years Later, which catches up with the couples later in their lives. Both series feature Trestikova’s signature working method, known as time collection.
During her years in Czech television, Trestikova showed an interest in female characters, directing several portraits of women with tragic lives. The disgraced actress in Lída Baarová’s Bittersweet Memories (1995), the imprisoned opponents of Communism in Sweet Century (1998), the victim of Nazism and Stalinism in Hitler, Stalin and Me (2001) and the concentration camp survivor in My Lucky Star (2004) all recount their personal histories, marred by 20th-century totalitarian ideologies.
Her latest trilogy of portraits (Marcela, René, Katka), shot in the late 2000s, brought her international attention. René won the prestigious best documentary prize at the European Film Awards in 2008. Katka won two awards at the RIDM in 2010, including best editing. In these three portraits of society’s outcasts, shot over a period of ten to twenty years, the director focuses more than ever on continuity over time, patiently building stories and waiting for events that will signify a life. Masterpieces of editing, the three films confirm the filmmaker’s deftness at transforming the humdrum existence of the downtrodden into unique, fascinating narratives. The trilogy also highlights Trestikova’s complex relationship with her characters, especially in René, where her own life increasingly comes into play.
Recently, Helena Trestikova’s works have been the subject of retrospectives at two major festivals, the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI) and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. The RIDM is proud to be the first festival in North America to pay her tribute by screening a selection of seven of her films and hosting a master class.
Presented with the support of the Chaire René-Malo and the Embassy of the Czech Republic
Jørgen Leth, Iconoclast
A major figure in Danish cinema, Jørgen Leth has built up an unclassifiable body of work over more than 40 years. To Lars von Trier, he’s a mentor. To the public, he’s a charming and charismatic man who travels the world to remake a short film in five different ways in The Five Obstructions. To sports fans, he’s the director of the best documentaries ever made about cycling. To the Danish consulate . . . he can be a nuisance. The fact that such a well-known filmmaker remains a total enigma is not only an anomaly, but also a testament to a totally original, uncompromising artistic vision.
While his film career started in 1963 when he directed a documentary about Bud Powell (at the time, Leth was a jazz critic for many local magazines), it wasn’t until 1967 that his reputation exploded internationally with the short film The Perfect Human. A totally innovative work, midway between an anthropological study and absurd comedy, this unprecedented film (with no real successors aside from later Leth films) remains the cornerstone of the world according to Leth. A detached, monotone voiceover, like a sort of deadpan scientific narration, soberly describes the film’s objective, which could be summed up as: Humans are interesting; let’s observe them.
Beyond the humour implicit in Leth’s strangely decontextualized approach to his subjects (observing humans like lab rats), the curiosity he projects is very real and, as it turns out, the key to his entire work. A music fan, tireless traveller and lover of sports and women, Jørgen Leth is passionate about human activity in all its forms. And he has never stopped trying to describe his contemporaries as objectively and openly as possible, whether through film or poetry.
Navigating between experimental cinema, documentary and fiction (only animation, as he says himself in The Five Obstructions, leaves him cold), he has left his indelible signature on all the genres he touched. This nine-film retrospective is in no way intended to be completist (Leth’s filmography includes over 40 films); it simply gives an overview of the avenues the filmmaker has explored. The lineup includes a sports documentary (A Sunday in Hell), an autobiographical film (Erotic Man), depictions of foreign countries (66 Scenes from America, New Scenes from America, Haiti Untitled), absurd “anthropological” works (The Perfect Human, Motion Picture, Good and Evil) and a film about a film (The Five Obstructions). Nine gateways into the unique world of Jørgen Leth.