Complimenting the ICO’s UK theatrical release of At Berkeley on 12th September ‘14, and in anticipation of our upcoming Wiseman retrospective in the first quarter of 2015, we present ‘Fred Wiseman: Reality and Film’.

This online project exists to engage new audiences, create debate and explore the importance of Fred Wiseman’s body of work which has been central to documentary cinema and film culture for over six decades. The accepted anthropological form of much of contemporary documentary film stems largely from the tremendous body of Wiseman’s work, and we hope this blog furthers an appreciation of this.

In 1998 Wiseman told an interviewer “My goal is to make as many films as possible about different aspects of American life”. At Berkeley is his 38th film since 1967 and we hope that by inviting a range of documentary filmmakers to nominate their favourite Wiseman film and tell us why they have chosen that film, our project will confirm Wiseman as one of the most important documentary filmmakers of the 20th and indeed 21st century era, as well as introducing his work to younger audiences who may not be so familiar with his films and working process.

Films and accompanying text will be posted over the course of the next six months and exhibitors, cineastes and anybody else who comes across our online project are encouraged to share the content on social media and of course join the conversation by leaving a comment.


James Marsh: Hospital


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If there is one filmmaker on this list who stands above the others as a documentarian, for me, it would be Frederick Wiseman. As soon as a Wiseman film starts, you know you are with the perfect guide – his editing rhythms are poised and hypnotic, and his attention to detail and to the primary of the potent, revelatory image is constant and surprising. Above all, it is his generosity and respect towards his characters that distginguishes his work. Interestingly, for a filmmaker who has no use for the adornements of score or created imagery, he describes his works as ‘reality fictions’. I can’t think of a better description of the documentary medium or indeed a better alibi for us all.

James Marsh (Filmmakers’ Documentary Poll, Sight & Sound, September 2014, Volume 24, Issue 9)

Director of Man on Wire (2008), Project Nim (2011) and The Theory of Everything (2014)

Joshua Oppenheimer: Titicut Follies


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My favorite Wiseman film is his first: Titicut Follies, not necessarily because it is his best, but because I have never been more devastated by a work of art. Years after my last viewing, I remain haunted – a nurse patronisingly barks ‘soak your piles’ to a patient in a bathtub. A patient is tube fed. A patient is shaved – first alive, then dead, as if there is no difference. And if memory serves me, there is an astounding cut from the cadaver being shaved to a birthday party, where a cheerful nurse leads the patients in a Jim Reeves song:

Have you ever been lonely?
Have you ever been blue?
Have you ever loved someone
Just as I love you?

Be a little forgiving.
Take me back in your heart.
How can I go on living,
Now that we’re apart?

A song about loneliness, cruelly and cheerfully sung for and by men cut off from the world, isolated from their fellow humans. An unflinching gaze into a tormented hell masked as rational. A nightmare – all the more horrifying because it’s real. Like when you wake up from a bad dream into an even worse reality. Despite all the discourse describing Wiseman’s work as analysis of institutions and how they structure their inhabitants (a sociological or anthropological project), what we encounter in Titicut Follies is the essence of Wiseman’s cinema, and what makes his movies great: they patiently translate the vast and minute terror of modernity, in all its ecstasy, into a single, condensed, and immersive experience for viewers.

Joshua Oppenheimer,

Director of The Act of Killing (2012), The Look of Silence (2014)

Eric Steel: Domestic Violence


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“I came late, perhaps to the idea of being a documentary filmmaker. I’d already had a career as a studio executive and producer when I saw Domestic Violence in 2001.  Of course I knew of Fred Wiseman, and I knew his films and seen many of them – but I had not really had the opportunity, perhaps even the pleasure, of studying the earlier work.  And I watched Domestic Violence with a different eye – and I like to believe that Wiseman’s sense of imagery, intimation, his organic, intuitive, poetic storytelling informed my work on The Bridge, and continues to do so today.  I love the way Wiseman tunes into the mysteries of abuse, exposes its roughest edges, but then allows the inexplicable to echo long after the film is over.”

Eric Steel
Director of The Bridge (2006), Kiss the Water (2013)