Arts Beat: Fred Wiseman, An American Legend

April 19, 2009  

Fred Wiseman is a quick witted, brilliant man who just loves what he does, and the passion shows in his work. The legendary American documentary filmmaker came to SMU last week as part of the human rights campaign.

The winner of two Emmys, a Peabody and many other awards came into filmmaking after attending Williams College and later Yale Law School. While he was in Paris working at an American law office he bought a camera and began filming. Once he got back to the states he knew he wanted to direct and his award-winning career began.

In the April 14 lecture in Hughes-Trigg, he showed six clips from his past human rights documentaries. The first clip was a Law and Order piece done in 1968. He filmed a Kansas City police arresting a prostitute. The audience watched on in horror as a rather big white man stood choking the prostitute.

The second clip was called “Welfare.” He takes viewers inside a government welfare center and shows the reality of the situation as a picture of everyday life: the crazies, the druggies, the honest, the thieves.

The third clip was of a sardine factory –interesting because there was no audio, yet you didn’t need it. This clip had around 300 shots for an eight-minute piece, which is a lot of different frames. He takes the viewer on the journey of how fish become sardines. You didn’t need narration because it was so visual you could almost smell the fish.

The fourth, a brief clip of a dean of discipline at an American school in the 1960s, showed how times have changed in student discipline. A boy headed to the doctor later in the day is forced to participate in his athletic class and then suspended after a dispute with the dean.

The fifth clip, an audience favorite, was of two great American ballet dancers performing “Romeo and Juliet.” This footage was masterfully shot. Every edit was for a reason. He would cut to a far-away shot and then back to a closeup so the viewer doesn’t miss the ballerina’s toe point or the passion between the two characters. He had earlier said, “You can have a lot of great video and edit it all wrong, or you can have no video and edit it all right.”

His final clip was of two men in the priesthood. One was a stubborn old man who didn’t think twice about the community nor did he want to. The other, who was inquisitive, kept asking the other man why he believed the way he did. While I didn’t quite understand this footage, I still wanted to know more about the men. Wiseman zoomed into the faces to make the viewer see every wrinkle. Visually it was a great piece.

Most questions after the presentation were from local filmmakers who wanted advice; others just wanted to praise him. However, his response to one question stood out: What drives you to pursue the questions that you answer in the films? “I am just a curious person, all things interest me,” he said. “I believe what I do is natural history in a sense, if the films last a long time. I would love to look back and see films of America in the 19th Century or films about what a hospital looked like in the Civil War. All my documentary films are going to do is be a huge source of confusion for future historians.”

To purchase his documentaries or read a full bio of Wiseman visit

Posted by Mary Summers

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