Frederick Wiseman and the art of the non-fiction filmmaker

‘National Gallery’, the octogenarian’s 41st feature film, is receiving rapturous notices

I'm about to leave the British Film Institute at London's Southbank having interviewed Frederick Wiseman for far, far longer than most film- makers would stand for. But the octogenarian won't let me go without making sure I have a way to reach him, just in case I "need something clarified". I might have known he'd be thorough.

For almost 50 years, the former law professor has camped out at various locations for months at a time so that he might capture what makes those places, and more importantly the people within them, tick. He spends many more months, and often more than a year, editing each movie.

In Wiseman's film world there are no narrators, no explanatory bubbles, titles or text, and there are no talking heads. The films are long; his latest feature, National Gallery, clocks in at a mere 180 minutes, which qualifies it as one of the short ones.

Devotees will tell you he’s the only “truthful”, genuinely objective film- maker. He’s having none of it. “I don’t discover the film until the editing room,” he says. “The reason I shoot so much footage is to have more choices. It’s the reversal of a fiction film, where you write it and shoot it more or less as is. I don’t know what I’m going to find going in. It’s always a crapshoot. The themes emerge from studying the material and editing the sequences together. I’d say that represents quite a lot of authorship.”

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He has nothing against narration per se and cites Marcel Ophüls's The Sorrow and the Pity as one of his favourite films. It's just not a technique that interests him. "Orphüls made terrific films interviewing people because he's a great interviewer. But generally, a narrator distances himself from the event and tells you what to think about it," he says.

By letting viewers find their own bearings, Wiseman allows them to discover far more than any guide or editorialising would allow. His painstaking, observational method has yielded some of cinema's most shocking and simultaneously absurd scenes: a group of female veterinarians castrating a wolf in Zoo (1993); a terminally ill woman in Near Death (1989) who is greatly cheered by her weight loss; or a monk swatting a fly in Essene (1972).

Avoid generalisations

“Every movie is like taking a course in adult education,” he says. “I get to study a different subject every time. The films teach you to avoid generalisations. I’m always amazed at how different people are. But there is common ground. When I made

Public Housing

, for example, those people wanted exactly the same things for their children as I did: that they get to college; that they get a good job. Those hopes don’t change.”

What would cinema – or, indeed, television – look like without the enduring presence of Wiseman? At 84, the iconoclastic chronicler of the western world has seldom seemed more relevant. Basic Training (1971), a study of boot camp at Fort Knox, casts a long shadow across Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket; Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson have frequently cited Titicut Follies (1968), a coruscating portrait of Massachusetts correctional institution Bridgewater, as an influence.

The flipside? Having emerged as part of the same wave of 1960s cinema verité that gave us the Maysles brothers and DA Pennebaker, Wiseman is often considered to be among the accidental architects of reality television.

“I’m vaguely familiar with it,” says Wiseman. “I don’t see that much television, so I can’t comment. I detest the term ‘fly-on-the-wall’. I like to think, whatever else, that I have some more consciousness than a fly. I got started maybe only five or six years after technological innovations like shooting synchronous sound film with available light. So some of the techniques I use are similar to the other film-makers at the time. But we’re interested in different things and we speak about our films very differently.”

Since 1966, Wiseman, the dean of documentaries, has scrutinised American life and institutions in such complex, scholarly films as High School (1968), Juvenile Court (1972), Public Housing (1997) and At Berkeley (2013).

The institutions in Wiseman’s much feted “institutional series” act much like a net in a game of tennis, he says.

“It’s just a gimmick to look at how people behave in a given context,” he says. “Institutions provide a way of looking at contemporary life. It’s a boundary. Maybe the boundary is a place or a building or a group of buildings or a geographical area. Some of the movies cover rather big areas like Belfast, Maine or Canal Zone. There were 6,000 people in Belfast and probably 30,000 or 40,000 in Canal Zone. But both places provided natural limits. Anything that takes place outside those places was not a concern for the film. I am interested in how everything functions. But the real interest is in different aspects of human behaviour.”

National Gallery, his 41st non-fiction feature film, is currently attracting the kind of rapturous notices that are typically reserved for the brightest and youngest of things. Some commentators have noted the film's proximity to his 2009 film La Danse, which charted the production of seven ballets by the Paris Opera Ballet, and Ballet (1995), his study of American Ballet Theatre. Have his interests become more aesthetic?

"No. In between the dance and the paintings, I've made a movie about Berkeley and a boxing gym. If I had made my first three movies about two ballet companies and then Titicut Follies, the question then would have been: 'Why have you stopped making movies about the arts? Why make a movie about a welfare centre?' The answer is simply that I'm trying to cover as many subjects as possible. And these things do tend to pop up in clusters."

Has contemporary chatter about transparency made access easier for him over the years? “Well, the National Gallery is already democratic because it’s free. And I don’t think all public institutions are accessible. Police departments are much less accessible now than they were in 1968.”

But why London’s National Gallery, rather than somewhere closer to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Wiseman lives? “It is a great collection of paintings,” he says. “There are 2,400 works, which is small compared to the Prada or the Met. And it doesn’t have sculpture or other art objects that are collected in larger museums. Excuse the expression, but it was a bit easier to get your arms around. And the paintings cover six or seven centuries. There’s no major human experience that isn’t shown in one of those paintings.”

He smiles. "What's more they gave me permission." National Gallery is out on Jan 11