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FREDERICK WISEMAN: 'Titicut's' Triumph

April 04, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | Robert Koehler is a frequent contributor to Calendar and TV Times

No American film has endured the strong arm of the censor longer than "Titicut Follies," Frederick Wiseman's shattering 1967 look at life inside Massachusett's Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane.

Wiseman's camera calmly stalks the hospital-cum-prison's horror chambers, where forced feedings and other medieval abuses take place. Shortly after its commercial release, Wiseman's documentary (his first) was deemed by the Massachusetts courts an invasion of the privacy of various patients at Bridgewater--this despite the fact that Wiseman had had the full blessing of state authorities during filming. The unprecedented set of rulings permitted Wiseman to screen the film only to audiences with a professional or scholarly interest in the film's subject matter; the filmmaker also had to notify Massachusetts officials in advance of any screening.

Talking to writer Robert Koehler from Austin, Tex., Wiseman ("High School," "Near Death") explains what he views as the real intent behind the banning of "Titicut" from the public, and he muses on the long wait from 1967 until its 1991 theatrical release and its upcoming, first-ever airing on national television.

When "Titicut Follies" opened to praise at the 1967 New York Film Festival, it appeared that it would have a decent run and then fade away. What happened?

It actually happened right after the festival. The rave reviews harshly criticized Bridgewater. An ex-Massachusetts social worker named Mildred Methven saw the reviews and wrote (then-) Gov. John Volpe that it was terrible that Massachusetts had allowed a film to be made with images of naked men--actually some patients we filmed who have been imprisoned without clothes for years. But this began to embarrass then-Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson, who had told me to my face how much he liked the film at a screening I arranged for him.

What was the problem with the state's argument that the film was an invasion of patients' privacy?

Something I felt then and still do is that the state had a conflict of interest in this case, in that it had a responsibility for maintaining good conditions at Bridgewater. The state was claiming my invading privacy out of concern for the patients. But if it had been concerned, it wouldn't have kept the inmates in such terrible, unsanitary conditions, in unventilated 19th-Century buildings, and so on. Actually, it was the state's own privacy, if you will, that it was interested in.

Didn't the state also claim that you had violated an agreement in which you gave Bridgewater officials final cut?

That was complete phony baloney. A person would have to be out of their mind to surrender what amounted to their First Amendment right. This was a charge Richardson cooked up to bypass my claim that the entire case was a violation of my freedom of speech. He was politically intimidated, and made the weak man's decision and tried to prevent the film from being shown--which he succeeded in doing. He could have run with the film and used it to become a leader in prison and mental health reform.

By its banning, though, didn't the film gain even more fame?

Richardson made the film's reputation. It did have some influence: It was one of several factors that brought about improvements at Bridgewater. Nine hundred and fifty inmates were housed there during filming; three years later, that number dropped to 350, and in the '70s the old building was destroyed and a new one was built. Now, ironically, "Titicut Follies" is shown as a training film to new employees there, to show what not to do.

What led to the lifting of restrictions on public screenings?

In 1987, five inmates died at Bridgewater, and the evidence showed that the deaths were due to the guards' neglect. The inmates committed suicide, and the guards apparently didn't notice. The outcry on this stimulated me to explore the possibilities of getting the film publicly released. Judge Andrew Meyer agreed in 1991 that no one's privacy had been affected, and thus, no cause for the film not to be publicly shown.

What is the effect of the film now, and how do you think it fits into your body of work?

It will shock a lot of people, but it will bring this world home to people who didn't know these places existed. And as bad as Bridgewater was, it was then one of the best facilities of its kind.

My upcoming film "Zoo" (airing on PBS in June) shows what a great place the Miami Zoo is. I'm interested in places that do a good job as much as places that do a lousy job. Even in "Titicut," we see how the guards are more in tune with the inmates than their middle-class supervisors. So I don't view this film, or the the 26 others I've made, as exposes. Why make the film if you know how it's going to come out?

"Titicut Follies" airs Friday at 9 p.m. on KPBS and Saturday at 10 p.m. on KCET.

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