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As We Are

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 29, 2007 5:00PM

One of our favorite writers, Dawn Powell, once wrote, "Satire is people as they are; romanticism, people as they would like to be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out." This explains why the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, some of which are screening at the Chicago International Documentary Festival starting this weekend, often feel so scathing. They show people as they are, not how we usually see them, and in doing so they implicitly ask the viewer, "Why?" They don't resort to the easy tricks of voice-over narration or talking-head interviews to soften the blow by telling the audience how it's supposed to feel about what they're seeing. It's a deceptively straightforward approach that also takes care to include context; because his films eschew overt editorializing, it's easy for a casual observer to call this approach "cold" and unfeeling.

Wiseman's career started off with a bang in 1967 with his first film Titicut Follies. In only 84 minutes, the film decisively chronicles the various ways the inmates at a Massachusetts State Prison for the Criminally Insane are (mis)treated by guards, social workers and psychiatrists. Shockingly, Wiseman had received consent from everyone on screen or their legal guardian to be filmed. But there are so many disturbing scenes of mistreatment and neglect that it was promptly banned by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which ruled that it was an invasion of inmate privacy. The ban persisted (except for educational screenings) until 1992. Roger Ebert's 1968 review calls the film "more immediate than fiction because these people are real; more savage than satire because it seems to be neutral." Incidentally, Wiseman himself prefers the term "reality fiction" when discussing his work.

2007_3public-housing.jpgLike good satire, his films often have a vein of dry humor. A sequence from Public Housing, which charts daily life at the Ida B. Wells public housing complex, is a perfect example. A sex counselor uses an enormous phallus to demonstrate the proper way to apply a condom; her audience is a roomful of young women, whose crying children are constantly vying for their attention. But as sensational as his subject matter sounds, his films never lose sight of the humanity of his subjects. In Public Housing, among the images of extreme poverty (cocaine deals and bureaucratic red tape), Wiseman also includes those of hope and resilience (resident organizations and community gatherings). His films show people as they are — with all their insides very much intact.

Wiseman is being presented with the CIDF Lifetime Achievement Award at the festival's gala opening tomorrow at 8 p.m. His films will be shown at a variety of venues through Thursday, April 5.