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About the 2006 edition
A point of view about the world is a point of view about cinema. If one expects any film to incorporate a point of view about the world, today one should also note the importance of stressing almost the inverse: in the midst of the present audiovisual saturation, the productive use of the means of the cinema claims for an even stronger engagement, exigency and clarity concerning the place of cinema in the modern world. As much as a point of view about the world, the production boom claims for a point of view about cinema as a consequent part of our vision of the world.
The 2006 seminar includes some examples of this, films and film makers that define the landscape, and, consequently, may guide us along a journey through some key trends of contemporary cinema. Starting with films where each shot reveals a strong construction method, we will then rather concentrate on the recent methodologies of direct cinema.
Regarding the latter, we will propose a confrontation between different filming strategies, including an analytic approach of various parameters: treatment of space, treatment of time, handling of the camera, sound, editing.
The 2006 edition shall run according to a new structure of debates, in three distinct levels: dialogues on specific films; thematic presentation on formal strategies; collective debate.
Transcription of the debates
Sixth debate, after the film by Frederick Wiseman
16th JUNE, FRIDAY
Film shown before the debate:
Belfast, Maine, Frederick Wiseman
José Manuel Costa (JMC)
Nuno Lisboa (NL)
Frederick Wiseman (FW)
JOSÉ MANUEL COSTA: As you all know, this is a very special occasion for us, to have Fred Wiseman here. When we started Doc’s Kingdom in 2000 I asked him to come and he said it was not possible. Then I asked him the next time and he said he would try but it was difficult, and ultimately he couldn’t. Then I asked him a third and again a fourth time, and eventually, this year, he managed to come. We thank you for that, Fred. As you know, he is with us today and tomorrow, thus we have two afternoons dedicated to the talk with him. Our proposal is that today we concentrate on Belfast, Maine and then, tomorrow, we first talk about the experience of La Dernière Lettre and finally we open to the general issues concerning his method and the work he carried out along the last decades. Belfast, Maine was presented in the year 1999. You had started in 67, so it was 32 years later and it was exactly your 32nd film. It is therefore a film of the latest period. In 1994 there was a retrospective of your work in Lisbon, and I guess that those who might have been there may be interested to discuss what you did since then. Most of your films have been regularly shown in a documentary film festival in Lisbon but, since that date, there has been no group discussion that I know of. So, I propose to start with this recent work, Belfast being a perfect example of it, stressing the continuity of your extensively tested method but also the fact that it continuously evolved to new levels of complexity. You will remember, Fred, that when we talked about the choice of one film to be fully exhibited and discussed, and when I referred editing, you said ‘Belfast is a highly edited film’. That was your expression, and I immediately confirmed that this would be the film to show here, at this moment, both to the audience acquainted to your work and to those who aren’t. Belfast would also be interesting because, in a way, it “includes” many of your other films, in the sense that comes back to their central issues – at the very least the two High School, Law and Order, Hospital, Welfare, Meat, The Store, Multi-Handicapped, Near Death... Here, for once, you have dedicated the film not to a specific institutional ground but to a community and to the different institutions inside that community. Maybe, then, also because of that, Belfast is a very special point in your career, a culminating point. Its scope, its complexity and its perfection (the pace, the way you unify the different elements, the way it flows...) shows the very mature level of your entire work. In a way (and this is not just to play with words) it is your own Final Judgment, taking the Michelangelo subject to the challenges of the human society at the end of the 20th century. I would say that the main subject of the film is how a community shapes itself, how it functions and what is the role of the individual in that community. Before Belfast, Maine you shot hospitals, schools, courts, police stations, whatever... Now you film a small but entire community of people while they work, while they try to help themselves, also how they control themselves, and you talk about the articulation of the different institutional grounds. Here you have to be constantly moving from one place to another (which rarely happens in earlier movies) and in fact the way you go from one place to the other, in itself, is a very specific and important way to shape the film. The way you approach each place, the specific houses, the way you film from the outside and then sometimes come inside...You had done this in some cases, but I believe here you have a whole new structure and a more difficult one. Would you like to start with that?
FREDERICK WISEMAN: Belfast is different in the sense that the subject matter is different. It’s not the institution as such, it’s the town of Belfast. Once I decided to do a movie about it, the issue was where to go, because it’s a city with 6000 inhabitants and you could easily make an 8000 hour movie out of it. I had the idea that, as an organizing principle, I would go to the places that had been the subjects of my other films (not exclusively but predominantly), which helped me narrow down the way I was going to use my time in Belfast. It amused me to use Belfast as a way of summarizing or referring to the other films that I’ve done. There are references in one way or another to almost every film that I’d done previously. The idea occurred to me in advance as a way of approaching the subject matter, but it’s not that unrelated to the way I approached the subject matter of any film because, even if I’m staying in one building, I have to have an idea where to go. It’s so much simpler when you’re within one building, because you go to the centers of power, you go to the weekly staff meeting, you’re there when the clients or costumers arrive. Here the problem was how to know what was going on in a city of 6000 people. Basically I used the newspaper. There were two weekly newspapers and each printed a list of events that were happening in the town; so I read the newspaper each week and, if there was an event that interested me, I called the people in advance to request permission. The difference in approach in Belfast was a reflection of the choice of subject matter more than anything else, because I’ve made films in single institutions since Belfast and both their shooting and editing resemble the films made before Belfast. I’m not very good at commenting on the trends in my filmmaking. I bring to each film the experience of making the other films, but I don’t formally think about what the differences are going to be between the film I’m working on and the previous ones. I think about how to solve the particular issues the new subject matter presents and not in more global terms.
JMC: Actually, there has been a film of yours where you had to do that kind of constant move, from one place to another, inside the same area, and that was Aspen...
FW: Aspen in one sense is a film about a small town, but the theory was different, although not totally different because I went to governmental meetings in Aspen and to people’s houses. It’s a little more comprehensive in Belfast. I also had to use a similar approach in Canal Zone , because the canal zone is actually the largest geographical area that has been the subject of a film. The issues that I’m dealing with are not so much a function of an evolution (if that’s not too pretentious a word) of my filmmaking technique, but more a response to the demands of the subject matter. Although you can say the choice of subject matter represents evolution. But I never think of it in those terms. I only think of subjects that interest me.
JMC: When you thought of Belfast as a subject matter, in order to enter that complex world of one city, you have certainly made a choice of specific issues and specific subjects to film...
FW: No, not issues but places.
JMC: Yes, but, for example, one out of two or three sequences seems to be about either medical care or social assistance to people at their homes... It is a very repetitious thing, even if with different people and in different places. Of course, it may be just something you did in the editing but it seems so relevant that it is hard to believe that you didn’t think about it as one of the subjects right from the start.
FW: It is one of the subjects in the film, but there’s a difference between that and the specific themes of the film. When I say that I chose to go to various institutions that were similar to or reflections of aspects of the work of the subjects of the other films, that’s different from the specific choice of events that I included in the final film. Those are a response to the material I have and the result of my effort to think about them in the editing room. I didn’t set out in advance to have a number of sequences in the film dealing with old or sick people. That came about as a result of studying the material we shot in these institutions that were similar to the subjects of the other films. It had to do with my effort to choose what sequences I wanted to include, what portions of those sequences I wanted to include, and the order in which I wanted to place them. The final film is a response to the experience of making the film, and not something that I have in mind in advance.
JMC: Still about the previous choices. In some cases you go to private homes.
FW: I decided I would go to private homes, but I had no idea what I was going to find there. When I went to the hospital, I had no idea what events were going to happen, what particular illnesses were going to be dealt with, what particular emergencies...
JMC: When you go to a specific home, I believe you go because you know in advance that some...
FW: The scene with the old lady in bed, for example. I decided that it would be interesting to go out with the visiting nurse, that provides health care services in people’s homes. So, I went out with her for a day. One of the places we went was that old woman’s house. There were probably three or four other visits that day that I didn’t use. First of all, I made the decision in the editing room that I would use the sequence with the visiting nurse. That was a response to studying the, say, four sequences I had with her. I had no idea in advance the visiting nurse was going to visit an old woman who had previously been a nurse, and I had no idea what her illness or her symptoms were, or what her response to the visiting nurse was going to be. That was the function of going on a visit, and then studying the material and trying to think what was going on particularly in that sequence, and how that might relate to other sequences. Nothing in the structure of the film or even its specific ideas are pre-determined. The only judgment I make in advance is that I’ll find enough material at a particular place, if I spend enough time (six or eight weeks) there, from which I can make a movie.
JMC: Not even about the choice of Belfast? Besides the size of the place and the fact that you believed it could be a good place to do this kind of film, did you have any other ideas about that specific region?
FW: I could live in my own house while I did the movie, because I have a house about six miles from Belfast. That was a heavily determining factor, so I didn’t have to live in a Holiday Inn. That’s one of the great secrets of Belfast. If I owned a house near all the places where I made films, I’d be rich.
JMC: I propose we concentrate now on the question of how you dealt with the material you shot and how you shaped this particular film in the editing room. Tomorrow we will go back to your shooting method in general.
FW: At the end of the first day of shooting, the rushes get sent to the lab (which is the same lab, in New York). I get them back three days later. Beginning with the fourth day of shooting, I look at rushes every night (silent rushes) and I make notes. Then the rushes are sent back to my editing room, where my assistant synchronizes the sound and the picture (because everything is shot on film). Then, when the shooting is over and the picture and the sound are all synchronized, a log is made up. Each shot is given a number. On the flash frame at the beginning of each shot, a little tab is placed. For example, the first shot would be 1-1 and an entry would be made into a notebook with a one sentence description of what is in that shot. At the same time, the edge code number (there’s an edge code every sixteen frames) for that shot (beginning and end of that shot) is entered. Sometimes the print through number (the code number on the original negative) is entered, and the number of the sound roll and of the picture roll. The book-keeping aspect of this kind of filmmaking is very important because, when you have a lot of material, you have to be able to recover it. There is a summary for each roll of film and, short time after I get back from the shooting, I look at all the sunk up rushes and I make notes about the sequences. I use a rating system that I discovered in the Guide Michelin: I rate them by one, two or three stars. No forks or knifes. That gives me a preliminary indication of the sequences that I think might make it into the final film. After I’ve looked at all the rushes and evaluated them, I start editing sequences that I like because in the beginning it’s extremely hard to get into the material because a lot of it is boring. Over the course of six or eight months, I’ve edited all sequences that I think might make it into the final film. When I’ve done that, I have them hanging on the wall or on the editing table beside me. In the course of two or three days, I assemble the first structure for the film. I can do that very rapidly because, at that point, I know the material very well, and every sequence that might be in the final film is in some kind of usable form, and therefore I can fiddle around with the order very quickly. For example, in the film that I’m editing now (about the State of Idaho legislator), I did the first assembly in a day, and I haven’t really changed it since I first did it. I could do that in one day, after about ten months of editing the individual sequences. It was a bit faster than usual. Usually it takes me two or three days. It’s rare that I ever change that. This time, I didn’t. So far I haven’t changed anything.
JMC: Is that usually a longer version that you then start to shorten?
FW: It’s usually about half an hour to 45 minutes longer than the final film. The editing that takes place then is not so much eliminating scenes (although that occasionally happens), it’s more compressing the previously edited scenes even more. When you edit a sequence it has a beginning, a middle and an end, but when you put it in relation to other sequences it no longer needs, for example, a beginning, because it is better covered elsewhere. So the beginning will drop out or, sometimes, the middle will drop out. Sometimes, you see ways of trimming the sequence that you hadn’t seen previously, when it wasn’t placed in relation to any other sequences. What happens after the first assembly of the material is that I work on the rhythm. The internal rhythm of a sequence and the external rhythm between the sequences. In Belfast, examples of external rhythm are the shots that I use between the major talk sequences. There are a lot of traffic scenes (I often use a lot of them). Those shots that connect the different sequences are extremely important, not only from the point of view of the rhythm of the film, but because they also provide information and (in the case of Belfast) the physical transition from one area of the city to another, and a sense of the different neighborhoods of the city. In the film I did about a model agency [Model, 1980] (which I think was shown in Lisbon in 1994), I used lots of shots of people on the street. In part, because I wanted to show that the models work took place in various parts of New York City. That was the literal reason: to suggest the movement of the models from one area to another. Those shots ultimately had a more metaphoric value in the sense that they showed ordinary people in ordinary dress walking along the street. They became useful presenting the question of what constitutes the model. There’s always a literal aspect of the sequence (particularly in transition shots but in all the sequences) – what is specifically going on, what services are being provided – but there is also, I like to think, a more abstract or metaphoric interest.
JMC: The metaphoric side is also in some of the longer scenes. In your films, more and more, the fact that you choose some subjects among others seems to play a metaphoric function in relation to your own work or to your way of working. More and more, you create the impression that everything also functions at a metaphoric level...
FW: If everything is a metaphor, then nothing is a metaphor...!
JMC: It does not mean that you’re talking about everything. Belfast, Maine, yes, in a way, is a film about “everything” in the shaping of a collective life. But I’m talking about a different level. By the choice of subject matters and also because of the whole structure of the films, we tend to find metaphors of not just the global issues of a society but of your own approach to your work. A very obvious example in a previous film is High School II, where you concentrate a lot on the emphasis that the school gives to “complexity”, the need to “get proof of things”, to analyze things in a deeper sense and so on. I can’t help thinking that when you do that you’re talking about what you think films should be in relation to reality and about your own role as a filmmaker: to stress the need for different angles, different perspectives...Not to define “a” meaning but exactly the opposite...
JMC: In the case of Belfast, another approach can be around the mood of the film. You start by showing Nature in a more or less pacific way and, during the first part of the film, a community living in some kind of harmony. Then, somewhere in the film (we never know exactly where) the mood starts to change in a subtle way, darker ideas come into it, and this dark side contaminates more and more other aspects of the film. If not before, there’s a turning point with the rehearsal of The Death of a Salesman, also because it is immediately followed by the most violent scene of the film, the shooting at the wolf. I am not saying that the film is divided in two parts, “before and after” those moments, because (as you always do) the change is not meant to be immediately obvious. But in fact, even if the following scenes are not all about violence (not at all), from then on the mood changes and the potential of violence slowly invades the film, until it turns into an explicit issue. First as a subject of talk (the Civil War) and then as visible “action”, by the end, when you shoot the scene with the guns. Suddenly the guns are there. So a gun has previously appeared (the shooting of the wolf), then death comes in, and, by the end, you’re specifically talking about it. And this connects to another level of the film, which is the public and the individual side. By the end, when you talk about violence in society, you are also talking about violence at home and you are already entering the grounds of a next film, Domestic Violence ...
FW: Yes. I wish you were an American film critic. I don’t have to say any more because your explanation is so good!
NUNO LISBOA: The film is about a community that takes care of itself. Therefore, it seems like a large institution without walls. When shooting, do you face the different places with the same strategy? For instance, the sequences in the assembly lines in the food factories: are they similar to the other events you shoot?
FW: They’re similar but they’re shot differently. Anything that involves an assembly line, you have the opportunity to shoot in more than one way, because it’s a repetitive process. For example, Meat  (which is a film about converting a cow to a hamburger): in the abattoir where they killed the cattle, they killed 3000 cattle a day. Each cow was dismembered in pretty much the same fashion. I could try out different ways of shooting it to see how it looked and how I might be able to edit it. That’s not possible with any other kinds of sequence. I realized, when I was doing Meat, that perhaps the best way to shoot that kind of a process is with a lot of close-ups, really very tight shots. That was adapted to the factory sequences in Belfast, in the potato factory and the sardine factory. It’s rare, in doing this kind of movies, that you have an opportunity to shoot an event in different ways, and that helps a lot in the choices you have in the editing.
NL: Could we say that you gave the same programmed attention to the gestures of the workers that they had towards what they were doing?
FW: Yeah, but I didn’t think of it in those terms. That’s one consequence of the way it’s shot. I think of it in terms of what makes the best pictures. For instance, in the sardine factory, I thought the attention to detail, the workers’ hands, the fish coming down the assembly line, the sardines in the pools were best dealt with in close-up. From a film point of view, it made better pictures. Take an extreme opposite example: if I wanted to show that Belfast had a sardine factory, I could have a wide shot of the building, a wide shot of the assembly line, a medium shot of the workers in the assembly line, maybe one close-up and then a wide shot of the outside of the building. I would have shown that Belfast had a sardine factory in which a lot of people worked but the effort (with the sardine factory as in all the other sequences) is, through the shooting and the editing, to offer an interpretation of the nature of the work. In many ways, Belfast is a film that’s organized around work. Almost every sequence in the film has to do with work of one sort or another, with the exception of a few, like the lice-picking or the domestic violence scene or the counseling scene (and even they have to do with the work of the nurse or the social worker who counsels the young women), some of the few scenes in the film that deal with personal aspects of people’s lives.
NL: But not in a personal way.
FW: I don’t know what you mean by ‘not in a personal way’. In one sense it’s very personal, because you’re getting intimate details of the people’s lives.
NL: Yes, of course, but one could say that it’s the opposite of a film like Welfare , where people go to the building and apply for the services. Here, the institution goes to them, in a very kind way.
FW: In the first counseling scene in the film, the young woman goes to the social worker’s office. In the one at the end of the film, the social worker has gone to the woman’s home. Certainly, in a rural community the nurses go out more often. When I say that, it’s probably not true, because I know from my own experience when I’ve been sick that, even in a big city like Boston, there’s a visiting nurses’ association and the nurses come to the house if you can’t go to them. So, it may be more common in a rural area, but it’s certainly true in a big city as well.
NL: Going back to the factories. As always, you’re doing the sound when shooting. How do you move about in the space? Regarding your camera man?
FW: It’s just the two of us and we have signals that we use between us. There’s a third person, whose job it is to change the magazines, but he’s usually not in the room. He’s somewhere where he can change the magazines unobtrusively. You can shoot for about eleven and a half minutes without having to change, but you always have to have extra magazines ready. Also, you usually use one kind of film inside, another kind of film outside, and you never know when you’re going to have to move outside, so you have to have a magazine always loaded with outside stock. In the room, during the shooting, it’s just the two of us.
NL: You said you could have shot it in different ways.
FW: In the factory yes, although in Belfast (because of the experience I had doing Meat), I knew that I wanted it to be shot with a whole bunch of very tight shots that I could cut fast. I went in with that idea, although, for experimental purposes, we also made some different kinds of shots. Meat was much more experimental initially, in terms of the shooting.
NL: As you said before, the transitions between places are not only transitions, they give very important information. For instance, one can notice that you shoot during the autumn. You also said you mainly shoot people working. What is the role of sequences like the one with the two painters or the hunter who is hunting in his leisure time?
FW: I didn’t mean to suggest that the film is exclusively about work (but certainly painting is work). I turn the question around to you. Why do you think I included the sequences with the painters?
NL: Well, you start with the painter who is painting something which could be around the city. Are you trying to see yourself as a painter or as doing an opposite job?
FW: It’s no news to say that filmmaking is a different form than painting. That’s certainly occurred to me, but I suppose it has more to do with the style of painting.
NL: You have two painters working. Why?
FW: Is it my job to tell you why or your job to figure it out? You tell me why I used the painters in the way that I did.
NL: Well, I don’t know. Maybe the last painter could not be in the beginning and the one in the beginning could not be in the...
FW: It has to do with the nature of their work and the style of the painters. The first painter is very realistic and somewhat photographic; the second painter is painting landscape, but it’s a much more abstract landscape.
JMC: It is related to the subject of Nature and the relation with Nature, the observation of it. The important issue here is that there is an echo between the two scenes, as between many others in the film. In fact, the structure of your films is a lot about that. You show things that later you show again in a different way. You make us think about what we’ve seen before. While watching a film of yours, we are invited to exercise this kind of memory and, by comparing, to reach other levels of meaning. When we come to that final painting we think about the mosaic structure of your film, the approach to the mosaic of that specific community and, I think, to the specific issue of Nature. Nature is something that crosses the whole film.
FW: That is what I thought I had in mind, but this discussion is the illustration of something that is characteristic of probably any kind of filmmaking, but certainly of documentary filmmaking: the filmmaker or the editor has to try to understand what it is he’s seeing and hearing. I’m not the first person to realize that reality is ambiguous or that a subject may have a variety of interpretations. To figure out what to shoot and determine what to use and the manner in which you use it has very little to do with filmmaking. It has much more to do with your general experience and your capacity to try and think about and try and understand human behavior. Which has to do with your general background, who you are, the way you think, what you’ve read, what experiences you’ve had and the way you try to bring those experiences to the interpretation of what it is you’re seeing and hearing on the film in front of you, in order to understand what’s going on. Not just in the sequence, but the sequence as you edit it. In order to edit it, you have to have some idea of what is going on between people. In order to understand what is going on between people, you have to have some feeling for their language and their gesture and their clothes and the situation that they’re in. None of that has to do with filmmaking. I mean, it has consequences for filmmaking, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the technical aspects of it, except in so far as the technical aspects help you to impose a form on it in the first place.
JMC: I would like you to talk about one specific scene, at the end of the film. There are two main sequences in church: the first one with the child and the second one about the specific individuals of the community referred by the speech of the woman. I found the latter a very strong moment of the whole film. I thought the speech was very good, very well structured, and I was very impressed by the specific moment when she comes back to the first names of those individuals and creates silence after pronouncing each name. I was deeply impressed by her way of doing it. Now, by putting the scene in that specific moment, you call our attention to a constant, major issue of the whole film, like saying to us “think about the shaping of the community but don’t forget that this is a community of individuals”. You are therefore dealing with this very “American” issue that is the community and the individual, the community versus the individual, the limits of social organization in face of individual freedom. So could you say something about that specific scene...
FW: The scene is obviously placed at the end of the film, because the effort is to have the viewer interpret it based on what he has previously seen. If I’d started the film with that sequence, it wouldn’t have had the same meaning. While you don’t know the specific people she’s talking about, you’ve met enough people in Belfast to have a feel for the community and the importance of these issues in it (and by inference in any community). A sequence’s meaning is determined not just by the actuality of that sequence, but by the fact that implicitly the viewer reads into that sequence what he has previously seen in the film (apart from its own experience). It’s an example of an editing choice.
JMC: And then it becomes a major issue of the whole film.
FW: It becomes an issue in a way that it might not have been a stronger presentation of the issue, had it occurred earlier in the film. The other sequence in the church (the baptism of the baby) presents different ideas, because (apart from the difference in the religious language) the preachers are talking about somewhat different aspects of behavior. The preacher in the first church sequence talks about a broken world which the minister in the second doesn’t explicitly refer to.
JMC: I thought about that in relation to something else. The dark side that I have stressed at a certain point also has a link, by the end of the film, with still another subject, which is the possibility of redemption, i.e., the “second chance”. The discussion about the family disruption in the end echoes the first scene about family disruption, but now she’s also very much talking into the future. She wants to extract a positive result of that and stresses the issue of hope. Again, you don’t wish to be one-sided: at the climax of the dark side there is a slightly positive mood.
FW: You know the old Woody Allen joke. He says that the American poet Emily Dickinson said that ‘hope is a thing with feathers’, and Woody Allen says, ‘The thing with feathers is my nephew and I’m taking him to see a specialist in Zurich.’ I guess it depends on what your attitude is toward the idea of redemption and hope.
NL: You consider the film as a whole when you work on it as a structure. Do you consider and work upon each shot or each sequence according to their place and recurrence in the film?
FW: Yeah. Before a film is finished, I have to be able to go through the whole film. In a sense, film editing is talking to yourself. Even though I may have arrived at a cut by making associations (or in some cases even dreamt it or thought of it in the shower), I have to be able to rationalize to myself, within a sequence, why it’s cut the way it’s cut. In terms of the structure of the film, I have to be able to say to myself why each sequence is placed in the order in which it appears in the film, and what its relationship is to the sequence before and after it, and how the first ten minutes are related to the last ten minutes. In other words, I have to go through the film and be able to put into words what I’ve done, even though I often arrived at those connections by making associations. It’s a funny process, which, in the one hand, is very deductive and very rational (or an attempt to be rational) and, on the other hand, very associative. I’ve learned to pay attention to both aspects of it. If I’m editing one sequence and I find myself daydreaming about another, I have to answer the question that that association poses. Is there a connection or is it just useless daydreaming? Both things occur. I’ve learned to pay attention not only to the things that are right in front of me or are the more rational kinds of thoughts, but to the things that are at the margin of my head, because they often turn out to be just as important as the so called rational, deductive aspects.
NL: So, you don’t work from the beginning to the end.
FW: No, I don’t work from the beginning to the end. As I described initially, in the beginning I just edit sequences and I don’t even formally begin to think about structure until I have edited all the sequences that I think are candidates for inclusion in the final film. It’s only after that, that I begin to assemble the structure. Then, after I’ve assembled the structure and I think the film is close to being done, I look at everything all over again. I look at all the rushes. For example, this Idaho movie that I mentioned, which is on my mind, because I’m in the last stages of editing: I have a hundred and sixty hours of rushes. The final film will be three and a half hours or something. The last thing I have to do, before I can say to myself the editing is finished, is to look at those hundred and fifty six and a half hours of rushes that are not yet in the film. Just to see, because sometimes I will have missed a transition, or a sequence that I originally rejected might be extremely useful in solving a thematic problem or a transition problem or telling a bit more about one of the people than had previously been known. In a sense, at the end of the editing, I circle around to the beginning and look at everything again and often find things that I’d forgotten or dismissed as not useful, because I didn’t known about the problem that they might be able to subsequently solve.
NL: Were the last shots of the film always thought as the last ones?
FW: No. I collected the shots of the cemetery (because it was a beautiful cemetery and, obviously, the cemetery is an important place), but I didn’t know I was going to end the film with that. As I worked out the structure, that seemed to be the logical end. As it appears to be very often – not always, depending on your religion.
JMC: Now, even if this is something that you repeat from film to film, I think it would be relevant that you mention the time structure, your way to suggest a “sequence of days”. In Belfast you include a suggestion of three nights, which would make the whole thing happen during four days...So, even if I don’t care whether it is four or six days, the fact that this kind of structure is consolidated throughout your whole work, makes me invite you to talk about it too.
FW: I don’t want to suggest that all this happened in one day. Often there are technical reasons (it’s less true of Belfast than of some of the other films) for people to reoccur in the film. When they’re wearing different clothes, unless they change their clothes five or six times in the course of the day, because they’re obsessive about taking showers, it would be strange to have one moment a t-shirt, one moment a sweater, another moment a suit or a coat. That’s only a small part of the reason, but that’s a reason. The viewer may not necessarily formally think about it, but there’s something strange about seeing somebody in a variety of clothes in a short period of time. In Belfast, it is also related to activity. The baker gets in before dawn. That’s an important aspect to know about the baker, because you see him arrive in the dark and by the time you finish in the bakery it’s daylight. The scene in the movie theatre where they’re showing Sinner is at night, the pool is at night, the African drums thing is at night. It’s also a question of wanting to use the light at different times of the day, the sunset shots, whatever. It’s a combination of technical and thematic reasons that determine how many days the film pretends to take place over. Even though the shooting of Belfast was eight weeks.
I’m faced with the same problem now in the film about the legislator: how do I present the passage of time? It’s too corny to go to the moon for the rest of the movie or in one building. Again, in the Idaho movie, I’m only trying to generally suggest the passage of time, but there’s no way that I will be able to successfully convey that the movie takes place over twelve weeks. Except in so far as there’s occasional reference to a date (I guess there is from time to time). Where I had most difficulty doing it was the in the Ballet  movie, for that part that took place in Greece, when they perform in an old theater that was built three or four thousand years ago. They did different dances on different nights. I had to resort (for lack of anything else) several times to moon shots to provide the transition between day and night. I don’t particularly like to do it that obviously, but sometimes you have to.
JMC: This concern of yours with the suggestion of “a sequence of days” is important mainly in relation to the whole narrative system. The whole film is built on the suggestion that we follow the story of some people along some days, which is the standard narrative structure of any “classical” film, something that is also there, in all your films...
FW: That’s right, but the story (there always is a story in the movie – at least I hope there is) is much more abstract.
JMC: More and more, I think.
FW: More and more. Wait until you see what the new movie is: complete abstraction.
JMC: I would close this part just coming to one of the first shots of the film that shows a boat where it is written ‘Belfast, m, e’ – ‘Me’, which I think stands for Maine, but is also your way of playing with words and saying, ‘This is a film about Belfast and me.’
FW: It stands for Maine. Right. But I’d never be that self-referential.
JMC: When we look into your “global film”, the one you’ve now been making for almost forty years, it’s also a film about your own life, the way you go through life. More and more we notice that the stressing of some subjects are also connected to your own concerns in certain periods of your life. The most “objective” documentary is autobiographical.
FW: The most objective biography is autobiographical. Any movie is autobiographical, because the so called filmmaker is responsible for the choices, and these are a reflection of one’s own interests and concerns and psychosis and passions and experience.
PARTICIPANT: I’m really interested in your editing process. Is it a very solitary process? Is it important that we read the film the way you would like us to? Do you test it, do you show cuts to some people?
FW: Obviously I would like it if you would read the film the way I intended it to be read. I’m dealing with unstaged events and the interpretation of many of them is often ambiguous, and I make an effort to retain the ambiguity. At the same time, I (through the structure, through the order of the sequences) try to suggest, at least inferentially or implicitly, what my point of view is. Nevertheless, there has to be enough room in the film so that other people can interpret it differently. Not so that they have to, but because they may, since their experience and values are different. The second movie I made was about a high school in Philadelphia [High School, 1968]. The film is really a kind of sad comedy and it’s quite satirical of many aspects of the school where it was shot. It screened briefly in a theater in Boston and someone brought a very conservative member of the Boston School Committee to see the film. I thought she was going to hate it. Her name was Louise Hay Hicks, and I was introduced to her afterwards and she said, ‘Mr. Wiseman, that was a wonderful film. Can you tell me how we can get a high school like that in Boston?’ It amused me, but I think she could feel that way, because she was on the other side of all the value issues. The values I thought I was satirizing, she thought were great. Some might say that that’s a fault in the film. I don’t think so and, if anything, the High School film is too didactical. I mean, it’s too obviously satirical and I don’t see how anybody could possibly miss it as a comedy, but she did.
PARTICIPANT: I agree, but, when you’re editing, don’t you feel sometimes that, because you’re so into the material, you would need like a soul mate outside, just to validate some of the things you think?
FW: No. I find it too confusing. Occasionally, I will show a movie to a couple of close friends, but I don’t think there’s anything I’ve ever changed as a result of their response. Once you get into that, I always think the other person is right. That’s why I like to edit alone, because I don’t like to have to talk about it. I’m not suggesting that’s the right way to do it, I’m just saying that’s what works for me.
PARTICIPANT: Like using irony. You might think it works and then again...
FW: How do you determine? Do you take a poll? Suppose you bring a close friend in and he doesn’t think it’s funny and ironic. Does that mean that it is not? For good or bad (I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant or presumptuous, although it might be), I’ve learned to trust my own judgment, because I have to follow it and if I don’t I’m lost. It doesn’t mean my judgment is always right (of course it is), but I have to follow it.
ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: I’m deeply moved by what I saw during those four hours. I saw it as a large canvas about the tragedy of life. I would like to ask you two or three simple questions. When they talk about things, some of them seem to me a little bit coincidental or organized. I will tell you exactly what they are and you tell me if they were by accident or on purpose. One is the rehearsal of the play by Arthur Miller, because we get back to Arthur Miller during the literature lesson. The second one is when a guy is talking about Galileo and his discoveries about the universe to a classroom that seemed to me to be, I wouldn’t say mentally retarded people but...
FW: I would.
ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: What he says about Galileo... He could be saying anything else, for those people it wouldn’t mean a thing. The third thing is the literature lesson when the teacher is talking about Melville, about Ahab and about Ishmael and the nigger (he forgets the Indian, which is very important in the book) and then again when he talks about Arthur Miller and the way he moves around those two big books in American literature, which are Death of a Sales Man and Moby Dick. I thought they were very ambiguous. The way he talks about the American dream and the uprising of the working class... I would like to know: was that just by accident? Did you arrive at that school that day and he was talking about that and you just took it as all the other things in the film or was it somehow thought over? He wanted to talk about Miller and Melville and you accepted that without discussion, without questioning, without even knowing what he was going to say? The Civil War – was it also an accident that the teacher was talking about that? You said you have a house within six miles of Belfast. So, you knew the teacher and you could more or less organize: let’s talk about the Civil War, Melville, Galileo, Arthur Miller. That, in a way, would be your way of showing something about the literature, the civil war, the universe. Or not?
FW: No. All of those were straight chance. None of it was organized, I didn’t know any of those people in advance. It was always chance and when, for each one of those, I knew that I had led a clean and virtuous and honorable life, I thanked the Lord for putting them in my path. For example, I learned about the rehearsal of Death of a Sales Man from the newspaper and, naturally, when I read they were rehearsing it, I went. The high school, I called up the principal and said, ‘I’d like to shoot an English class.’ I called up that morning, maybe late the night before. It’s just plain old luck.
ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: Which is fantastic, you know?
FW: Yes, it was fantastic. Obviously, you have to know what you’ve got, but the opportunity was luck. Simply, when that man started to read about Galileo to those mentally disabled people, I couldn’t believe it. It was a fantastic bit of luck.
ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: Do you more or less share (I’m sure you do) that this is a very moving and very tragic view of life and this world?
FW: That I’m aware of, yes. That’s not luck.
ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: That’s the main issue. This is a fantastic canvas of the world. I’m going to make a very silly comparison: your film looks like the Sistine Chapel. Thank you very much.
FW: Thank you.
JMC: When I referred to the Final Judgment, that was exactly what I was talking about. The subject of the American dream comes by chance (as usual) but its role in the final structure is explicit and very important. It is an important echo of High School II, where at a certain point (for me the climax of that film), there was a discussion in the classroom about the state of the American dream...
FW: There was a similar sequence in Blind .
JMC: ... and the idea conveyed by that other scene was something like ‘the American dream today is to earn money’. At least one of the students says that. Of course, what they say is what they say, you’re not writing the words, but here the subject comes in a darker mood, an even darker echo of that previous film. Here, at least on the piece you chose, the idea conveyed is somehow beyond that, what he says is that the American dream is a false thing.
FW: I recently reread The Confidence-Man, which is another great Melville novel. It is not as much read as Moby Dick, but all the current American character types are represented. You can read the newspaper and then go back and look at The Confidence-Man and say, ‘Well, that’s this character and that’s this character.’ You can go right down the line, which is one of the reasons why Melville was such a great writer: he saw American life very clearly.
ANDRÉ DIAS: I would like you to elaborate a little on sound editing, starting from two scenes that seemed to me not so transparent. One is the first food processing scene in the mash potato factory, where most of the workers have ear protection, but the sound is not so loud to us. Maybe that’s worth commenting on. The other one is when the social worker visits the big man with the money and psychological problems (that’s also a very moving scene). When we go out, we see the house (or another house), a car with an opened door and we hear a commercial for car repairing. I thought it was very strange. Not bad but very strange, like sarcastic. Very subtle but very, very strong. Can you, starting with those two scenes, explain some of your use of sound?
FW: The sound in the potato factory, there’s probably quite a difference between listening to it for eight hours and for five minutes. I didn’t lower the sound. It was at the level that it was recorded. On the other hand, I didn’t boost it, because I thought that would have been artificial. The sound coming out of the trailer, it just happened to be that that was a commercial. That was in the air, so to speak, as radio is, and I used it. It’s, in part, related to what I said before. A lot of the material you get is chance, but the way you use it is not chance and your capacity to recognize what you’ve got is completely unrelated to the technical aspects of filmmaking.
LUCIANA FINA: So few young people in Belfast. Was it your choice for the film or the reality?
FW: Reality. Most of them leave when they finish high school, because there’s no work.
ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: Only two negroes in the film?
FW: There are very few in Belfast.
SUSANA MARQUES: I have two questions. The first one: when you thought you were going to make a film about Belfast, did you think that you should also make a film that could be about any city? You chose places that are probably very characteristic of Belfast, but also places that exist in any city. I saw it as a kind of mapping of what makes a city, a community life. The church, places where people meet, the bar, etc. – a geographical thing. Did you think about that? The second question: you were saying that you edit first the scenes that you think are going to be in the film. Why do you think those are the ones? How do you choose them?
FW: They are scenes that I like or that I think are good. I don’t always end up using all of them, but often you know when a scene is good or you think you’re going to use it. For example, I knew I was going to use the scene of the social worker and the girl sitting on the car, which I used at the end of the movie. I knew I was going to use the church scenes.
SUSANA MARQUES: When you have all the scenes and you’re structuring the film, do you think if there are enough scenes to portray Belfast or even if there are too many? When do you know it’s enough or when to stop?
FW: I don’t know. Like so much of this kind of filmmaking, you have the intuitive sense or you think you have enough material from which you can cut a movie. You may not be right, but yet, at a certain point, you have to stop. Either because you’re tired, or because you’re running out of money, or because you think you have enough material, or some combination of all that.
SUSANA MARQUES: But when do you know when to stop in the editing? You could easily take some things out or put some more because there are...
FW: That’s right. I could spend six years or more editing any one of these films, but maybe, at a certain point, I’m tired or the structure works for me, and I think the film has a rhythm that’s adequate, or I can’t see what else I can do with the material and I want to make another movie or go skiing. It’s not quite that arbitrary because I always have to feel (even though it may be an illusion) that I’ve done the best job I can with the material. When I feel that way, it’s over. It is hard to stop but, otherwise, with a hundred or a hundred and twenty or forty hours of rushes, it could take even longer than I do.
SUSANA MARQUES: It’s a temptation to keep on working.
FW: Yeah, but I’ve learned (although some people don’t agree with that, because my films are long) to be very hard on the material. Most of it is really no good. For example, the Idaho movie (which is on my mind): I started with a hundred and sixty hours, but I’m really dealing with about thirty hours. It’s true of every film that a good part of the material you have, when you review it, is really not very useful.
SUSANA MARQUES: Does it happen often that some scenes that you shoot and you think are really going to be in the film then are not and vice-versa?
FW: Yeah, that often happens. Both things.
JMC: Did it ever happen to you during the editing stage to feel that you wanted to come back and shoot something else?
FW: I’ve gone back twice. I went back for Law and Order , the film about the Kansas City Police. After three months of editing, I thought I didn’t have enough material inside the precinct police station where most of the cops in the film worked out of. So, I went back for ten days. I made four movies about a school for deaf and blind children, in Alabama. I went down there with the idea of making one movie but, after a couple of weeks shooting, I realized that the situations were very different (the school for the blind, the school for the deaf, the school for children who were deaf and blind and had some other major handicapped like spinal bifida, a workshop for adults who were blind and deaf). I couldn’t make one film about the whole place. So, I decided to make four films. I edited it for four or five months, and then went back for a couple of weeks to fill in what I thought were the gaps of the material that I had. Only two times I’ve gone back.
JMC: In this film, there was no temptation at all? As you had a house near by, you could always come and shoot something else to...
FW: A movie like Belfast, you could shoot it for twenty years, because there’s always something interesting going on. I just arbitrarily stopped. I figured I had enough material.
JMC: Still referring to the house nearby... Does that mean you knew some of these people beforehand?
FW: Actually, no. While I had the house six or seven miles out of town for twenty one years before the movie was made, my visits to Belfast consisted of going to the supermarket, a restaurant, a movie theater and the bakery (but not the bakery that’s in the movie). Actually, I got to know somebody who’s become a good friend of mine in Belfast, only as a consequence of the movie. Before that, I had really little or no contact with anybody in town. I really didn’t know much about the town. I mean, I knew about it visually, but not anything else. I’d never been to the potato factory, I’d never been to the high school, I’d never been to the sardine factory... Other than go to the movie theater, there was nothing in the film that I’d previously done.
JOANA CHARDWICK PIMENTA: I’d like to come back to that autobiographical thing, because it’s not very clear to me yet. I found it very explicit in the Melville scene and in the Civil War scene and in the beginning and in the end with the painter. I would like to know why you feel that need to always make a statement in your films about your way of filmmaking.
FW: Well, I don’t always do it. Sometimes you stumble across it or sometimes there’s a double purpose. For example, there’s a discussion of Marivaux in the movie I did about the Comédie Française [La Comédie Française ou l’Amour Joué, 1996] that could also be interpreted as a discussion about the style of filmmaking. A lot of these things have served double (or triple) purposes, and sometimes they’re just meant to be jokes.
BRUNO CABRAL: It seems very different to shoot in a factory where you have a process (it’s easy for you to think that first you want to shoot this thing and try different angles, different kinds of shots) and to shoot people. For example, the classroom: when you arrive to the English lesson, when do you start shooting? How do you decide? Do you shoot everything that’s happening?
FW: Yeah. For instance, when I arrived at the class, at the high school where the man was talking about Melville, I got there for the beginning of the class and we started shooting instantly. That’s one of the reasons you have to shoot a lot of film for these kinds of movies, because you don’t know what people are going to say or do or how they’re going to move. If, for example, I waited for him to say something interesting, then I would have missed the introduction. If I’d waited for him to start talking about Melville, I would have missed some of the important things he said about him. I always make it a rule, when I decide to shoot a sequence, to do the whole of it. There’s only one rule that I know that’s inevitable in this kind of filmmaking and that is: if you think something interesting is not going to happen, and you turn the camera and the tape recorder off, that’s just the moment it will happen.
JMC: I remember you saying that once you decide to go into a place to film, you don’t like to do a lot of previous research without the camera. You like to go almost immediately with it, because you don’t want to miss things.
FW: I don’t want to miss things and the shooting of the film is really the research, since the events in these films are not repeated. Except for things like the assembly line stuff, nothing is ever the same. So, I might be there doing research one day and I’d be very unhappy if I missed something that was really interesting. I’d rather not know it happened, and when I’m there be there and prepare to get whatever is going on.
CATARINA ALVES COSTA: I want to ask a question about Belfast, Maine and this event structure film, where you go to different places all the time instead of being inside the same building. Is most of the material you have for this film the same kind of sequences from which you choose the best (for example, the nurse visiting: you have five people and then you find one interesting), or are there a lot of other events that are not at all in the film, and are just thrown away?
FW: There are lots of individual sequences that I have and don’t use, and sometimes I have a choice. The example I gave you are the nursing sequences: if you spend a whole day with a visiting nurse, she may see five or six patients in the course of the day, and I only use one or two. It’s a combination of that.
CATARINA ALVES COSTA: Another question related to this: does it ever happen that you go and decide not to shoot at all (because it doesn’t look right or because you don’t have permission to film)? Do you always film the events when you arrive there? Do you ask for permission?
FW: It depends. If the whole film is taking place in one building, I might arrive in the morning and nothing particularly interesting is going on, and I’ll wait for something to go on. In a film like Belfast, when I’m going to the high school and I know I can go to the English teacher’s class, I’ll go into the class and start shooting instantly. It depends on the circumstances. For example, on the film I did in the welfare [Welfare, 1975], the welfare center opens at eight o’clock in the morning and closes at six o’clock at night. Most days, I’d try to be there from eight in the morning, so I was there ten hours. I might arrive in the morning and it was quiet, nothing much was going on. I used that time to talk to the social workers, or get an idea what they were anticipating, or find out when the next staff meeting was or go have a coffee. Then I waited for something that I was interested in to happen. With Belfast it was more like, ‘This is the day I’m going to spend with the visiting nurses’, ‘This is the day I’m going to go out with the police.’ It was different, because of the need to make a decision at the beginning of each day or early the previous evening.
CATARINA ALVES COSTA: How to deal with asking for permission? Do you say to people: ‘Don’t look at the camera, do as you would normally do, forget about me’? How does it happen?
FW: The worst thing, in my experience, is to say, ‘Don’t look in the camera’, because that’s inevitably when they’re going to look in the camera. I try to get permission from everybody. I don’t get written releases, I get tape recorded consents. I sometimes get them before the sequence is shot, most often I get them after the sequence is shot. I can’t go to a doctor and say, ‘Stop treating this person, because I want to explain to you that I’m making a movie’, but afterwards I explain. If they say no, then I don’t use it but, based on my experience, it’s very rare that anybody ever says no. I tell them that I’m tape recording my explanation of how the film is going to be used and their response, and if they say no, I don’t argue with them, it’s no. I also very much depend on the First Amendment of the American Constitution, which guarantees freedom of press and speech. That’s particularly true when you’re dealing with a public (by public I mean tax supported) institution. I know this varies from country to country, but in America, because of the First Amendment to the Constitution, public institutions are meant to be transparent. In other words, the public has a right to know what goes on, and the individual’s right to privacy has been interpreted by the United States Supreme Court to be less important than the public’s right to know. That means that for anything that happens on the street you don’t need releases, because it is a public place. A tax supported institution can deny you permission to go in (you can bring a court action insisting on permission to go in, but if you do that you’re not going to get the cooperation), but once I get in, I try to get releases. It’s an additional protection but, for all the public places I’ve been in, I don’t worry so much about getting releases.
The private places: for example, I did a movie about the Neiman Marcus department store [The Store, 1983], which is a big luxury chain in America. It’s a private chain, so I was very careful to get releases from the people in the movie, particularly the customers, because they were all rich and could afford good lawyers. It varies from situation to situation. I’m partially protected by the American Constitution.
CATARINA ALVES COSTA: Do you think that filming in America makes it easier to get this kind of relationship with the camera and this talking freely?
FW: I don’t know whether it’s unique. People used to tell me that it was unique to America, but then I had a chance to make a movie in France about the Comédie Française. People said, ‘You’ll never get away with it, because the people in France don’t like their picture taken and actors will act for you all the time’, but my experience in making the movie at the Comédie was no different than working in America, and the experience of working with actors was no different than it was with people who aren’t actors. When they acted, they acted, and when they had their community meetings and informal conversations in the quarter, they were no different from the people in all the other movies. I don’t know whether that’s always true, but that was my experience.
JMC: It happened twice in your life that you could not, at least for a certain time, show the films you did. One is a very famous case that lasted many years, and the other one is happening now.
FW: Right. Titicut Follies  was banned for twenty four years, because the courts initially found that the film was an invasion of privacy, although they ultimately found that it was protected by the First Amendment. As for The Garden , I’m involved in a contractual dispute with Madison Square Garden, which is a private place.
INÊS OLIVEIRA: When you said that you didn’t find it so different to shoot in France and in the United States, I think the common thing is your attitude. I’d like to know if you have a general procedure for approaching the people you’re filming. For example, the scenes of the hunter. I don’t see myself talking to them, but you have to (and to the old lady who is very fragile).
FW: Yeah, I have a general procedure and that is to be completely direct about what I’m doing. I don’t give them any phony stories, I never lie, I tell them exactly what I’m doing, how I’m doing it and where the film is going to be used. I don’t want to put myself in a position, when the film is finished, of somebody saying, ‘Well, you told me the movie was going be used for x and you’re using it for y.’ Honesty is the best tactic. Perhaps it was less true in Belfast than in some other movies, because it was so spread out, but people at the place talk to each other and they’re making an individual as well as a collective judgment as to whether or not they can trust me. Both tactically and ethically, the best thing to do is to be absolutely honest about what you’re doing.
INÊS OLIVEIRA: I guess that in this case of Belfast, Maine, you may have been asked why you chose to film Belfast out of all the cities.
FW: You could ask that question about any of the other films, and the judgment has always been idiosyncratic. I picked Belfast because I knew a little bit about it. Although not that much, it was nearby. I thought Maine was beautiful in the Fall, because of the autumn colors. I could have spend six years making some kind of pseudo-scientific investigation of what constitutes the typical average small town, and I don’t think I would have been any better off than just saying Belfast. Why did I pick a welfare centre in New York City rather than in Topeka, Kansas? Why did I pick the one in 14th Street rather than the one in 125th Street? Why did I pick out a high school in Philadelphia rather than one in Mulberry, Alabama? You have to make a choice. The only thing that I try and keep in mind is to pick a place that is thought to be a good example of the kind of institution that it is. I don’t think I’m in the exposé business. Even Titicut Follies at the time, in 1966, when the film was shot, was probably one of the best if not the best prison for the criminally insane in the United States – as horrible as it was. The high school where I made High School was thought to be the second best high school in Philadelphia, and Philadelphia’s school system was thought to be a very good one. The thing that cuts across all the movies is I try to pick places where people who know a great deal more about the institution than I do say that it’s a good example of its kind.
RICARDO SILVA: How did the people from Belfast react to their own image, or the image that you show on the screen?
FW: The reaction was divided on class lines. The people who worked in the factories in Belfast liked it a lot. The people who moved to Belfast as a retirement community (people from New York and Boston and elsewhere who moved there in recent years) didn’t like it.
RICARDO SILVA: Do you think you could make that same film in any other town in America the way you did it in Belfast?
FW: I don’t know about any town in America, but certainly many towns.
KEJA HO KRAMER: Have contemporary politics in America changed the way that you can film or that you are filming?
FW: No. Not so far. For example, I was quite surprised that I was able to get permission to do a film about a legislator, given the political climate as you read about it in the newspapers, but I had relatively little difficulty. It was actually quite easy. I found somebody who introduced me to the people in charge of the legislator and after some period of time they said OK. Idaho, where the film is made, is an extremely conservative state. It has two republican senators, a republican congressman and a republican governor and a legislator that is completely dominated by conservative republicans. On the other hand, they were extremely open to the idea of a film and, once I got there, I saw that even within the Republican Party it wasn’t monolithic. There was quite a spread of opinion, even in the dominating party, ranging from extremely conservative to quite liberal. In fact, that experience is characteristic of all films: I’m always surprised by what I find, because it has always countered the cliché. It’s always much more complicated and the cliché view is always much too simple minded. That’s part of the fun of doing the movies, because you’re constantly discovering that about new things. That’s one of the reasons the films are sometimes long. The effort is always to reflect the complexity that I find, that I hope goes beyond the clichés in the final film. To get an accurate reflection of the political climate in the United States, it wouldn’t be through the institutions that I’m doing. It would be more directly related to choices of specific subjects concerning the way politics are administered now. Like the people running the evangelical churches, or the way the White House is administered and the way they try to manipulate the press. I don’t think one could get access to that sort of thing.
JMC: Finally, after so many years, you are doing a film explicitly and directly about the political side of your own society. Do you find that you are responding to any particular context?
FW: I don’t find it a response to contemporary political events in America so much as the fact that a state legislator is one of the key institutions in American society, which sets the policy and grants the money for the subjects of many of the other films that I’ve made. The money for the prison which is the subject of Titicut Follies comes from the state legislator of Massachusetts. The money for the high school in Philadelphia comes from the City of Philadelphia and the State of Pennsylvania. The money for the Juvenile Court in Tennessee comes from the Tennessee State legislator. A legislator is a (if not the) key institution in a democratic society. So, it seems a natural subject for me, given the fact that I’m doing an institutional series. It’s just that I finally got around to it.
JMC: It’s one of those you may have thought about years before.
FW: I thought about it for a long time and I never did anything about it, although, about twenty five years ago, I had the chance to make a movie about the Federal Congress, in Washington. I decided not to do it, because it was too vast a subject. I couldn’t have covered it in twenty one-hour movies. Even the state legislator (and the movie is going to be about three and a half hours long) is so complicated, because there’s no aspect (at least in America, I don’t know how government runs here) of people’s lives that is not touched by a state’s legislator. Absolutely everything.
SÓNIA FERREIRA: You already talked about the First Amendment and privacy, but I would like to know if sometimes you feel uncomfortable about something and you don’t use it, just because you don’t know how to deal with it.
FW: I’ve felt uncomfortable more than twice, but I’ve only resolved it in terms of not using or not shooting a sequence twice. There was a scene in a movie I did about the emergency ward of a hospital in New York in 1969 [Hospital]. A man who worked in the subway was brought in. He touched the third rail in the subway and all his nerve endings were fried. He was dying, but he didn’t feel anything. He had no capacity to feel, because his nerves had all been electrocuted. His family was around him and I decided not to shoot that. Also in Hospital, somebody was brought in who’d been in an automobile accident. The night attendant was lifting him on the side where his ribs were crushed. I knew that (not because of any inside medical information, but only because the man was screaming), so I suggested to the orderly that he did not lift him on that side. I regret it not shooting the man who worked in the subway, because it was a good scene and ethically there’s absolutely no difference between that scene and many other scenes in the movies. In retrospective, I think it was a mistake, because the family had said OK and that’s the only criteria I use. If they say OK and I want to shoot it, I do, because I have to act on the assumption that when I make a request people understand what I’m saying. That’s the assumption that doctors act on. For example, if you go to a doctor’s office or you go into a hospital and some procedure is being performed, and they ask you to sign a release, at least in my case I’ve often signed it without really fully understanding (even though I’ve read it), because I want them to go ahead.
SÓNIA FERREIRA: The problem are not the authorizations, it’s you. If you don’t feel emotionally comfortable with the situation. Sometimes we say, ‘I can’t do this.’
FW: That hasn’t happened to me, and I’ve been in some emotionally quite disturbing situations. The fact that you’re working is a defense. Is not that you don’t feel what’s going on, but you’re also there to make a film, and the fact that you’re carrying the equipment and having to make decisions is a way, in part, of shielding you from the impulse or from allowing.... You don’t always have time to experience the full feeling, because you’re too busy getting the sequence. It’s not like you’re there watching and it’s not like you’re watching it on the film (sitting in an audience), because you’re there and you want to get the right angles and the sound and permission. It’s exciting and it’s adventurous.
PARTICIPANT: Why did you feel you had to make a film about Belfast?
FW: It was no different from the other films. I made the judgment (whether correctly or not) that there was a film in the material.
PARTICIPANT: No particular point made or intentions to communicate something?
FW: You’ve just seen the film. In my view, the film is a failure if you now have to ask me what my point was in making it, and if I could say what its point is in twenty five words or less I shouldn’t make the film, I should just give you the twenty five words.
CATARINA ALVES COSTA: You said you never say to people, ‘Don’t look at the camera.’ Your films have a very, very strong point of view and, at the same time, no one ever looks or talks to the camera. How do you position yourself as a sound recorder in a way that people won’t look at you?
FW: The microphone is essentially the way this mike is. It’s just below or just above the frame line. Sometimes it’s even in the frame. Except in those situations when I’m using a radio mike or radio mikes (in which case it’s just pinned on under the shirt). But basically the mike is just like this.
CATARINA ALVES COSTA: Don’t people look at your eyes?
FW: I don’t understand how you can get away with that, because it’s an unusual situation. People seem to be acting completely naturally, and yet there’s a microphone almost in their face and a camera about eight feet away. You can get away with that and, in fact, in my view, people don’t change their behavior because you’re there.
JMC: Maybe you should explain how you work with the cameraman, because it means that you, yourself, always know where the frame line is.
FW: We have little signals that we use. I’m leading him with the mike and we’re always looking at each other. I’ve got one eye on what’s going on, one eye on him. He’s got one eye on me and one eye on the camera.
MIGUEL COELHO: About the scene with the wolf. In lots of your films we see humans shooting animals, but this scene seemed to me a little bit different.
FW: First, you see the man walking, you see the wolf and then you see the man come into frame and shoot the wolf.
MIGUEL COELHO: I remember Zoo , when one of the keepers was shooting the rabbit. That was a steady shot and here I felt an effect. There was something much more shocking in this scene, and we don’t usually see this kind of effects in your movies. We see the thing as it’s happening, then we reflect on it. This scene looked to me much more brutal. I wanted to know if it was because it happened very fast (I felt a very cinéma-verité look).
FW: It did happen very fast, because I was marching, the wolf was in the trap and he shot at him. I had to anticipate, we had to move ahead of him, in a bit. You needn’t be a genius to anticipate the fact that since he was a trapper, he was going to shoot the wolf.
MIGUEL COELHO: Did you already know him? Had you been with this man before?
FW: I knew he was going to shoot the wolf, and when I saw the wolf and the trap we ran ahead of him. It’s an illustration of the fact that documentary filmmaking is a sport. It’s a joke, but it’s true. You have to stay in shape. You have to keep your feet away from the other traps. In that case, it was a question of running ahead of him. That’s often the case. When he was walking back to the car too, because I wanted a shot of him arriving at the truck. He knew that I wanted to shoot his work, absolutely, but I didn’t ask him to stop or start or shoot at any particular time. We rode around in the truck with him and the assistant was driving our car behind it. It is a brutal scene. It may also depend on the different attitude toward a rabbit and a wolf, because in Zoo, when the zoo keeper clubs the rabbits... It depends on how close you are to bunny rabbits (your reaction to that scene), but it’s also a brutal scene, and when she feeds the rabbit to the boa constrictor, it’s perhaps not very good for your digestion.
ANDRÉ DIAS: Nevertheless, there’s a series, not really on nature in general, but on human relationship to animals. You have Primate , Meat , here we have a lot of meat processing and the scene with the wolf. Those are very strong scenes in your films, and it seems like you have a strong opinion about human relationship to animals.
FW: What do you think the opinion is?
ANDRÉ DIAS: No, no, no. I don’t want to know. I want to convey to you that it’s very complex and it looks complex in the films, as it appears. You don’t judge, and it’s much more shocking to see the food processing (like the sardines) than really the poor wolf. As in Primate: we see the little monkey going from the cage to little samples of brain tissue. Isn’t it a really big point in your work, the animal?
FW: I’m very interested in the relationship of people to animals.
ANDRÉ DIAS: But you don’t have an opinion that you’d like to express in addition to the one that’s on the film? I understand that.
FW: No, because, you know, a picture is worth a thousand words.
JMC: At a certain point, it’s not really just the relationship between man and animal. You are also very concerned with the food system.
FW: That’s part of the relationship between man and animal.
JMC: Of course, but I think you are specifically concerned, in many films (and in this one in particular), with the whole system of making and using food. What do we eat.
FW: That’s absolutely right.
ANDRÉ DIAS: You have an independent distribution policy for your films. Are you planning a DVD edition of your work?
FW: Oh, yes. I hope they’ll be out in DVD in the Fall. All of them. Certainly they’ll be out in America, whether they’ll be out here or not I don’t know. It’s extraordinarily complicated to get out a DVD edition that’s a decent DVD and that’s marketed properly and that you get a chance of getting some income out of it.
ANDRÉ DIAS: What about internet?
FW: Internet? No, I don’t want to do anything on the internet, because, basically, I earn my living off the films, and if they appear on the internet I...
ANDRÉ DIAS: Not the films, but the interviews.
FW: No, because I’m camera shy, and I don’t know what use will be made of it.
ANDRÉ DIAS: Even the written things?
FW: No, there are lots of written things on the internet. Not lots, but certainly some.
JMC: It means you’re planning the DVDs yourself.
FW: I’m planning to do it myself, because, so far, nobody has made me an offer on which I could make an honest amount of money.
JMC: Are you just including the films or other material?
FW: No, I detest the idea of putting other materials on. You work very hard to make the film, and I know there are some filmmakers who like to deconstruct their films on the DVDs, or to put their favorite out-takes on, but it seems to me that it completely destroys the idea of the film, and it’s just gossip, curiosity and marketing devised. If people want to see the films, that’s great, but it’s a very bad idea to add anything to the film. The film exists, and if people are interested, that’s what they’re going to look at. It doesn’t help to hear me talking about a DVD, or to show scenes that I didn’t use. If I thought the scenes were any good, I should have used them. If I don’t like them, they shouldn’t be on the DVD. Otherwise, I have six million feet of “outs”. I could put out a six-million-foot DVD. I can’t do the math fast enough, but it would be roughly 4000 hours of film. It would be very interesting.
MADALENA MIRANDA: Has the relationship between you and the people you film changed throughout the years, with you being a well-known director, or is it always the same and they react the same?
FW: My relationship with the people filmed hasn’t changed. Sometimes they may have seen a film or two, most often not. I always offer to show the films to the people that run the place that is the subject of the film. Sometimes they take me up, most often they don’t. Again, I try to make the request for permission as transparent as possible, because I don’t want anybody saying to me a year later, ‘You’ve deceived me.’ I send them a letter, which includes a brochure which describes all the films, and the letter says, ‘If you want to see any of them, I’m glad to send them to you.’ It’s no more difficult or easier to get permission now than it has ever been. There are few subjects I haven’t been able to get permission for.
MADALENA MIRANDA: Is the awareness of people of being filmed just the same as it was when you started?
FW: Yeah, it’s the same. It’s very strange, but in my experience people don’t look in the camera, and 99% of the people don’t object to being filmed.
MADALENA MIRANDA: Your universe is so full and complete. What kind of films do you like, what kind of filmmakers?
FW: I probably like the same films that everybody else likes. The last couple of years I’ve been so busy that I’ve hadn’t the chance to go to the movies very much, but I saw a terrific American independent film last Summer, called Me, You and all the Others by Marianne de Jolie [Me and You and Everyone We know, Mariana July, 2005], which I assume was a great fake name.
BRUNO CABRAL: Did it ever happen that you didn’t shoot a film, because you had no funds to do it?
FW: Not so far, but I take enormous risks (which I don’t recommend). I have an arrangement with the lab in New York, which I’ve had from the beginning, that they’ll do all the printing and processing on a deferment. For instance, I didn’t pay the lab on Titicut Follies, which was the first film I made, for six years but, as a result, the lab has had all the business for all my films, because I feel very loyal. The guy that owns the lab has helped me enormously. Sometimes, I’ll go ahead and shoot the film when I know I don’t have enough money to edit it, but gamble that over the course of time I’ll raise it, and so far I’ve been able to do that. I don’t know what the situation is here, but it’s extremely difficult to get the money. It takes me a long time. At least most American documentary filmmakers go to the same places: Public Broadcasting or the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment of the Humanities .There are a couple of foundations in America (like the Ford Foundation or the McArthur Foundation) which occasionally give money for documentaries, a couple of other foundations which once in a while give money, and there’s the BBC and ARTE and that’s it. Most filmmakers all over the world more or less go to the same places. It’s harder now than it was twenty years ago.
ELOY ENCISO: In your filmography you really have shown a lot about middle class or low class in America, but very few times the upper class or rich people. Is it because you’re not interested in this kind of people?
FW: I have shown rich people. I’m interested in all classes. For example, Aspen  is a movie by and large about rich people. Racetrack  is a movie almost directly about class, because the poor Asian immigrants clean the stables and the richest people in the world own the horses. You see them both and everything in-between in the movie. The film about the Neiman Marcus Department Store [The Store, 1983] is about rich people. So, I don’t think I’ve neglected them. On the other hand, it’s harder to find situations where you can shoot rich people in action, but that’s one of the reasons I did The Store and one of the principal reasons I did Aspen (apart from the wish to go skiing there).
ELOY ENCISO: Do you think there’s any difference in the way they act?
FW: No. It was Hemingway that said, ‘The rich are different from you and me because they have more money.’ A very profound thought of Hemingway’s, but...
JMC: This is the moment to thank you deeply for this and hope that you will be patient enough to go on tomorrow afternoon.
FW: I’m very patient but I want to say that the film you’re going to see tomorrow, The Last Letter , I discovered just before this meeting that the first two or three minutes are missing from the print. Perhaps, then, before the screening tomorrow, I will tell you what’s on them. I’ve arranged for an assassination squad to visit the distributor’s office in Paris... Actually, I’m furious. It’s absolutely outrageous that they have sent a print out where the first couple of minutes are gone...