ApordocDoc LisboaLisbon DocsPanoramaDoc's Kingdom                                                                                                    

home         about        2018        archive       album       dear doc                              International Seminar on Documentary Film

year by year


Programme ...
Transcription of the debates ...
Film stills ...
Auxiliary texts ...
Who made it ...
Download catalogue ...

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.
2006 edition

Transcription of the debates

Seventh debate, close reading with Frederick Wiseman


Film shown before debate:
La Dernière Lettre, Frederick Wiseman

José Manuel Costa (JMC)
Nuno Lisboa (NL)
Frederick Wiseman (FW)

: I propose that we first talk a little bit about La Dernière Lettre. This is not the first time that Fred Wiseman came to fiction but, anyhow, it is still an exception in his career. When we had the chance to have him here, we thought: let us first go through one of his typical movies of the latest period and then let us take the occasion to listen to his comments on the experience of working with an actress in a completely different set up. This had been previously a theatrical experience (in America and then in Paris) and eventually you transformed it into a film. It’s interesting to know the differences between the work at the theatre in Paris and the experience of the film. We may talk a little bit about that and then go back to Fred’s career and show other pieces, starting with the entrance scene in a crucial title of his global work: Welfare [1975]. Here we will take a more analytical way, and, after showing the piece, Fred will be the one asking questions to you all – so prepare yourselves to answer him... But, starting with La Dernière Lettre, Fred, it’s important that you talk first a little bit about the way you did the film because there were different ways of shooting a play like this, either continuously or not (I guess it was not)... Also, how did you change your normal shooting system, how did you work with the text, how did you work with the actress, how did you work with the lighting system (a very crucial aspect here)...?

FREDERICK WISEMAN: I came across the material by this great Russian writer, Vassili Grossman, like so many things in my life, by chance. My wife and I were walking one night in Montparnasse. I noticed outside a theater that two actors were going to perform a chapter from a Russian novel called Life and Fate, and we went in. I didn’t particularly like the way they performed it, but I’d never heard of Vassili Grossman and I thought the text was magnificent. Originally, I just thought about making a movie, and I inquired as to who controlled the rights. There is a Serbian publisher in Paris, whose company is called L’Âge d’ Homme. He published many of the Russian dissidents and Russian writers who couldn’t be published in the Soviet Union. I discovered that he had arranged or participated in the smuggling out of Life and Fate from Russia in the late seventies, and first published it in Germany and then in France. The novel (from which this is just a fourteen-page chapter – the novel is about eight hundred pages), is a panoramic view of Russian life from the revolution to the battle of Stalingrad. Vassili Grossman was one of the two most famous Russian war correspondents during the Second World War. He and Ilya Ehrenburg covered the war for Pravda and Izvestia and other newspapers (Grossman covered the battle of Stalingrad).
Anyway, I got the English and the French language film rights, and then I put on a version. The first time I did the play was in America, in Boston, in 1986 or 87. In 1994, I did a documentary at the Comédie Française [La Comédie Française ou l’Amour Joué] and, a few years after that, they asked me if I wanted to direct a play at the Comédie. It took me about six seconds to say yes. I suggested The Last Letter and I did it as a play with Catherine Samie (the woman who’s in the movie) in the year 2000. The play was well received in Paris, and Catherine won a prize as the best actress in Paris that year for her performance in the play. The first time I did the play in the United States, in 1987, the lighting was very different. It was just streaks of shadow and streaks of light, and the actress moved in an out of the light and the shadow. Then I had the idea (before the production in 2000) to try and suggest all the other people by shadows. That’s what we did in the stage performance. Naturally, in the theater all the shadows were of Catherine and created simultaneously with her gestures and her movements. The play had to be very carefully choreographed, because Catherine had to be at specific places on the stage in relation to the light, so that the right shadows could be created. As a member of the audience, you were always looking at Catherine and the shadows, you couldn’t separate them out. For the movie, I could take advantage of the unique aspect of film, so that the shadows could become a more complete representation of the other people who are being talked about in the text. The making of the movie was the complete reverse of the process of doing a documentary, because everything had to be planned in advance. I broke down the text into 47 scenes, which we shot over a period of 15 days. For each scene I made little sketches of what I wanted the light to be and how many shadows needed to be projected. It ranges from sequences where there are no shadows to up to forty shadows (perhaps a bit more in the scene where she’s talking about the march from the town to the old ghetto). About 95% of the shadows in the film are shadows of Catherine, but for a few of them (particularly in the scenes with multiple shadows) there’s also a double. That was extremely hard to coordinate. I found an actress who was also a mime, and we had to rehearse quite a bit, so that her gestures paralleled Catherine’s gestures. In one or two cases in the final film that didn’t work (some people think it was done deliberately, but it wasn’t). Each of the 45 or so sequences that the film was divided into was a minute or a minute and a quarter, a minute and a half, and we tried to shoot three of them every day. Each day, what we would do first was rehearse the light and the lighting movements. Then Catherine would come down from her dressing room, and we would rehearse each scene maybe three or four times. Then we would shoot it four or five times, but each time not necessarily in the same way because, since Catherine was there and the shadows were up and it was a very simple set, I could change the relationship between the shadows and Catherine. The first edited version of the film, about 80% of it was in shadow. I realized that I was falling too much in love with the shadows, so I put more of the straight shots of Catherine without her appearing as a shadow back into the movie. Now it’s probably about 60% Catherine and 40% shadows of Catherine.
It was interesting in a variety of ways, but primarily because the process (with a few exceptions) was so planned and had to be so organized, because of the constraints of money and because only a few things were improvised. To the extent that it was possible, we tried to anticipate and plan everything in advance, which is the reverse of the way I make documentaries, where nothing is planned other than the idea of being present at the place. It took me about four months to edit it. The choice was obviously which of the takes to use in the extent to which I could intercut them. The particular problem in the editing was to try and figure out what the relationship was between the shadows and Catherine, and to try and cut it so that it was (unless the word sounds too pretentious) properly choreographed. In one sense, the cutting of this was to work out the dance. The movie is a dance between Catherine and the shadows.

JMC: This was the first time you shot in 35mm, with only one camera. Can you talk a little bit about the way you rehearsed the reading of the text? Does it follow closely what you did in the play, the rhythm of it, where she breaks and where she’s silent?

FW: The verbal rhythm of it is very similar to the play, except that her voice came way down, because she didn’t have to project it to reach the last row of the theater. That was a bit of a problem in the beginning, because Catherine, as you heard, has a very strong voice. I had to encourage her to bring her voice way down. In terms of the reading of the text, it was very close to the reading of the play. The interpretation of the doctor’s woman and of Semyonovna is the same as it was in the play, because we had rehearsed the play for seven weeks, discussed it and worked various alternatives. What changed a little were the gestures, because (in particular in close up) they become much more exaggerated. I had to bring some of them down a bit, for the same reasons her voice had to come down.

JMC: Did you actually work with her specifically for the film, also rehearsing different ways of doing the gestures... ?

FW: I didn’t want the film to be a filmed version of the play. In my view it isn’t, particularly because her voice and her gestures are different and what you’re looking at is different. In the play you’re looking at everything simultaneously; in the movie, I had the choice to look at her face, to look at her in profile, to look at her from the back of her head, to look at her with her arms out stretched, to look at a medium shot of her torso, just to look at her walking, to see one shadow or see forty shadows. The rhythm (both verbal and visual) of the movie is very different from the one in the play.

JMC: Since you followed the work you had done before, concerning the way she herself reads the play, can you tell us about the kind of work that you did in the beginning for the play? For example, how much is her own initiative to choose how exactly to punctuate the reading?

FW: I think it was a collaboration. One of the things that I insisted on in the play (and that also happens in the film) is that I asked Catherine to break down the fourth wall, to always look at somebody in the audience, to pretend that one person in the audience was Vitya. She didn’t always have to look at the same person, but her look had to be always directed toward one person in the audience for a period of time. I wanted to make it very personal and I wanted the public to feel that the text was addressed directly to them. Catherine had a hard time at it in the beginning, because she wanted to play it as if it was a universal audience and not made up of particular individuals. One day she told me that she liked Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart and Charlton Heston. I went to a film poster store in Paris, bought big pictures of Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart, brought them to the rehearsal room and put them in the equivalent position of the audience. As soon as she saw her ideal loves watching the rehearsal, she was able to direct her attention to them and therefore to the audience.

JMC: What did you tell her concerning the look into the camera?

FW: I didn’t ask her to look at the camera all the time, but we worked out specific moments when she would direct her attention to the camera. There are a lot of those moments, because I wanted to retain that same sense of intimacy. In film it’s easier to do, for the obvious reason you can look just at her face.

JMC: Had she made any films before or was she just a theatrical actress?

FW: She had had small parts in feature films. Often, when American directors came to Paris and they wanted someone to play the blond, Catherine became the elderly blond. The only movie I ever saw her in was after we made the last session, she had the chance to play a maid in a James Ivory movie called Le Divorce [2003]. A completely forgettable movie. But she has played small parts in many French films.

JMC: About your team: in your documentaries, you do the sound, there is the cameraman... Here the team is somehow bigger...

FW: Here it’s a much bigger crew, of fifteen or seventeen. It was shot in 35 mm, all the movements had to be planned, the director of photography had to be concerned about the lighting... So, it was the director of photography, a focus puller and a clapper loader and there was a sound man and a boom operator, and then there was somebody for make-up... For a fiction film it was a small crew. The principal functions and then there was a script girl (if that’s not an old-fashioned expression) and I had an assistant. I didn’t do anything with the sound. I was busy enough with what I was doing.

JMC: How long did the editing process take?

FW: The shooting was fifteen days and the editing was four months. Most of it had to do with working out the rhythm of the shadows: when to use them and how many, and the relationship between the shadows and the shots of Catherine.

NUNO LISBOA: Was everything choreographed?

FW: Everything. At the end of the shooting, I realized I didn’t have enough transitional material for the moments between the shots, the quiet moments. When I was doing the screenplay, I thought about the problem, but I hadn’t solved it in my mind. In the course of the shooting, I realized how I could solve it when I saw the set and what you could do with the light on the set. We spent the last day of shooting just having Catherine cross the stage in and out of the light in different directions. As you can see in the film, I used a lot of those shots, because I needed quiet moments between some of the more dramatic aspects of the text. I also wanted to make it less static. As usual, those transitional shots served a variety of purposes, and they provided some additional motion in the film, which otherwise might have been even more static than it is.

NL: Everything is very worked upon. The light, the sound, the work on the text, the gestures. Could we say that the tears are as choreographed as the gestures?

FW: Catherine is a very good actress. She can produce tears in the same spot (or almost the same spot) with great regularity. It’s not that she doesn’t feel, but she knows how to do it. How she does it, I don’t know, but she can do it.

NL: Did it work as an expression of the text? Always?

FW: Yes. It worked as an expression of the text.

NL: Does everything come from within?

FW: I would say that everything was very carefully planned because, in addition to the rehearsals for the movie, we had seven weeks of rehearsals for the play and, while the movie was shot about ten months after the play, it was quite fresh in all our minds.

ANDRÉ DIAS: In certain interviews, you said you prefer black and white film and also that you use it here, because you have seen newsreels from the time of World War II and they were in black and white. I would say the most important films about the Holocaust were not shot in black and white but in color. Have you thought about that when doing this? For instance, Night and Fog [Alain Resnais, 1955] or Shoah [Claude Lanzmann, 1955].

FW: Sorry, I remember Night and Fog being in black and white, but that’s just my memory. The answer to your question is no. I didn’t think about that, I just prefer black and white. I thought it was appropriate to the subject and, generally speaking, even for the documentaries I prefer black and white. Although in recent years most of them have been in color. It’s more stylized, it’s more graded. For me it’s more interesting to look at. To my best knowledge and belief, I was not influenced by Shoah or Night and Fog.

CATARINA MOURÃO: How much did you work with Catherine in terms of the delivery of the text? Weren’t you, at any point, tempted to let the camera roll? How did you control?

FW: It’s definitely collaboration Catherine brought to this. At that point she had been at the Comédie Française for 45 years and she’s its doyenne. She’s a major actress in France. She brought all those years of experience to the part. What I did was suggest to her ways I wanted her to try and act. I don’t know how to separate out what she contributed and what I contributed, we just work and have worked very well together.

CATARINA MOURÃO: Weren’t you ever tempted to let the camera roll even if it was beyond the shot you had determined? Did it ever happen?

FW: Not really, because you have to follow the text. The only thing in the film that was not in Grossman’s original text is the lullaby. The rest of the words are all Grossman’s words. The chapter is (as is the novel) magnificently written, so I wasn’t in any way tempted to add to it or ask Catherine to improvise. In some situations, I can see that would be very helpful, very useful, but not in this situation.

NL: Was it shot in the same order of the text? From beginning to end?

FW: Yes, it was shot in the order of the text, from beginning to end.

MARIANA LIZ: After editing this film, did you, at any point, think, ‘I’m done with documentaries and what I really want to do is to direct actors?’

FW: No, I like doing documentaries. They are a lot more fun than doing fiction. I didn’t particularly like the repetitive aspect of it. I thought some of that was really boring. It’s absolutely necessary but boring. Whereas in documentary everything is a surprise, in this kind of movie there are very few surprises. Obviously, there’s a difference in the performance from take to take. You have to be attentive in a somewhat different way than you are in a documentary because, with the exception of factory scenes (the ones I described yesterday in Belfast and the sardine factory), you don’t get a chance to shoot anything more than once. Whereas in The Last Letter, or any fiction film, you’re only limited by the number of times you can shoot or how much time or money you have. You can shoot it forty times if you have the resources and the patience to do it. Documentary is more exciting, because you can turn a corner and come across an absolutely extraordinary scene. In the course of making documentaries, you know that the chances are that you will, if you are lucky enough and patient enough. Whereas, at least in my limited experience in fiction film, there may be some surprises in performance or in some ideas you have about changing the camera angles or the lighting, but they don’t have the same force that coming across an absolutely spectacular event has in documentary.

PARTICIPANT: I was wondering (instead of this categorization in fiction, documentary and all that) if there was a conscious reference to filming dance (you already said that it was a choreography), if you had some kind of dance film in your mind while directing the actress or in the way you were filming her body and her hands.

FW: I am interested in dance, particularly in ballet. I’ve made a film about a ballet company [Ballet, 1995] and I like to watch dance performances. So, I used the word choreographed (may be a bit pretentious).

PARTICIPANT: It’s not just about choreographing, but also the way you’re filming the body, the movements. There are a lot of shots of the hands which are really important.

FW: I’m very interested in gesture. For example, the Idaho movie is made up of a lot of meetings, and sometimes a meeting will go on for two hours. I might be using six or eight minutes of the meeting, and sometimes there’s a camera run out just at the moment when the dialogue is most interesting. If I want to preserve that dialogue for the final film, I have to find cutaways. I have to find shots of people not talking from other parts of that sequence that I’m not using, cut them in and make them appear as if the expressions in the people’s faces and the gestures they’re making were the expressions and gestures that took place at a time when they’re not. One of the ways I try to create that illusion, however momentary or fragmentary it may be, is paying close attention to gesture. The first shot may have somebody lifting their hand to their face and the second shot may have somebody taking their hand away from their face. In the first shot maybe somebody turning left and in the next shot maybe somebody turning right. I try to organize the cutaway sequences, so that there’s some rhythm and they seem to have some purpose in relation to each other. I use that experience or I modify that experience in both staging the play and staging the film.
Later on, I’ll show you a sequence from Basic Training [1971], which is a movie about the United States Army basic training during the Vietnam War, and an illustration of what I was just talking about. I had about five hours of rushes of the soldiers putting on camouflage and being trained to go into barbed wire, look out for land mines, be silent, and I compressed these five hours of rushes into a sequence of about seven minutes. There are about seventy shots, but you’ll see the relation of one shot to the next and what overall effect is created by the selection of shots, the rhythm with which they’re shown and the sound that provides the equivalent of music for that particular organization of shots. Basic Training is an example. I learned something which I’ve then applied to other movies about how to compress material and organize it in a different way, and simultaneously present a literal meaning. In other words, to be very specific about what’s going on, but at the same time organize it in a way so it might suggest something else as well.

SUSANA NASCIMENTO: Did you ever think of integrating the dimension of the stage in La Dernière Lettre in a more explicit way? You shot in a studio, didn’t you?

FW: It was shot in a studio, and I didn’t. I wanted to try and avoid simply making a film version of the play. Whether I succeeded or not is not for me to say, but I was very conscious of wanting to do it differently but within that framework of still using the shadows. In my view at least, the movie is quite different from the play, even though the text is the same and even though I made use of the shadows in the play. Unless it sounds paradoxical, but you have to have seen them both to understand what I’m talking about.

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: When talking about transitions in the film, you said that you learned their importance from documentary. How much of your experience in documentary do you bring to fiction? Do you think they are different? How does learning cinema through documentary affect a fiction film?

FW: My experience in fiction film is extremely limited. When you do documentary films, you learn about so many different aspects of filmmaking. It’s much less specialized than fiction film. Also, in doing documentary, you learn a lot about people’s behavior (your own as well as other people’s), and you see people using language and making gestures and walking and doing things. A wonderful repository of experience to draw on when you’re asking actresses to do something. As a documentary filmmaker, you’ve been exposed to a very wide variety of human experience. People in other professions are as well: doctors, used car salesmen, teachers. Maybe we all are, to some extent, but in making documentaries you not only meet a lot of people, you’re also witness to a lot of very extreme situations. For example, I’d never been around people dying before I made a movie about that [Near Death, 1989]. Before I made a film about the police [Law and Order, 1969], I had no experience with the police other than my speeding tickets. My experience of making the movies is that I’ve been exposed to a wide range of human behaviour, which I can both consciously and unconsciously draw on when I’m working with an actor, which I thought was very valuable. I can’t necessarily say this led to that, but I like to think that I’ve used the experience I’ve had in making documentaries in the little experience I’ve had in fiction.

NL: Concerning the differences between theater and cinema (especially that the actress is performing in front of the camera, not in front of the audience), do you see this film as placed in a specific historical epoch, or do you think of it as a rememoration or as a reminiscence? The text being a letter addressed to the future, what do you think of the time of the film, as a director and as a viewer?

FW: I never think in those terms. I just think of it as a movie I made about a subject that I was interested in, in a particular style. I don’t think of it in historical terms of any sort. I don’t try and place it (how does it fit in my mind) among other movies about the Holocaust or the Second World War or other monologue movies. I’m sure it’s a limitation of mine, but it’s just not anything I’m particularly interested in. Sorry.

JULIE FRÈRES: Can I ask you to talk a little bit about your life before making films and explain how you came to cinema?

FW: My life before making films in twenty five words. It all becomes kind of a Rorschach. I went to university and I studied English and political science. Then I went to law school, primarily because I didn’t know what else to do. I also didn’t want to go to Korea, and you could get a student deferment if you went to graduate school. I didn’t like law school and I never went to class. I read novels for three years, and I really got a very good education in law school in fiction. There was a terrific room in the library of the university where I went to law school where they had every book you’d ever want to read on an open shelf and very comfortable chairs. I spent three years there. When I got out of law school, I had to go in the army and I spent two years there. Then I lived in Paris for a couple of years. Now everybody wants to be a filmmaker, but at that time everybody wanted to be Hemingway or Fitzgerald, and I certainly wanted to be both of them. I hanged out in Paris for a couple of years and then I came back and I had the misfortune to get a job teaching in a law school, which I did for three years. Then I reached the age of thirty and decided I’d better do something I liked, because I couldn’t bear what I was doing. It was the year before film school was so popular. I worked in a production that was half documentary and half fiction. That completely demystified the process of filmmaking for me, in the sense that I thought, if those people could do it, I certainly could. When I had been teaching at the law school, I taught a course on legal medicine. I took the students on visits to prisons and mental hospitals and parole board hearings and criminal trials, because I wanted to make the practice of criminal law more real to them, and to show them the kind of places their clients might end up if they didn’t represent them well. One of the places that I took the students to is the prison for the criminally insane called Bridgewater. It was around the time when I couldn’t bear teaching anymore, and I had the idea of doing a documentary about it. I knew the superintendent, so I asked his permission. It took me a year and a half to get permission, and then the film got made. In the course of doing that film, I realized that what you could do at a prison for the mentally insane you could do at other institutions, and it seemed to me that the logical follow-on (at least in America) to a prison for the mentally insane was to do a movie about a high school. I had the idea of doing an institutional series, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Basically it came out of my discontent with what I was doing, my long time wish to try and make movies and finally getting off my ass and trying it. I don’t know whether that’s sufficiently psycho-analytical, but that’s more or less the ‘career trajectory’, as they say.

JMC: That film was Titicut Follies, the one we referred to yesterday – you couldn’t show it for a long period of time.

FW: Twenty four years.

JMC: The film that Fred was involved in, before his first film, was The Cool World [1964] by Shirley Clarke. You did the production of the film.

PARTICIPANT: Are you proud of it?

FW: I didn’t like the function of producer at all and, after that experience, I decided I would only make my own movies.

JMC: One can say you produce your own movies. You are the producer and the filmmaker.

FW: Yeah.

JMC: I think this is the right moment to go to the excerpts. We start with Welfare, a crucial film in what one would call the first part of Fred’s career, in the middle of the seventies. Titicut Follies was made in 67 and Welfare in 75. It is a film about the welfare system in America, and it is shot entirely in one place, showing the people that come there and have to convince the staff that they are really in need of money or a house or food...

FW: I’ll show the first twelve minutes and then what I’d like to do is reconstruct with you why I did what I did. I’ll ask you to tell me what I did.

[Projection of the initial excerpt of Welfare.]

FW: Obviously you’re not familiar with what the alternatives might have been, but I’m going to ask you to figure out why I chose the shots that I chose, and the order in which I chose them. How does the film start?

[Inaudible answer.]

FW: Is that the first thing you see?

PARTICIPANT: The close shots of people being photographed one after the other. That’s the first thing I remember.

FW: Does anybody else remember anything else?

BRAM RELOUW: The title and the sound.

FW: The title and the sound. Right. It’s all obvious, I mean, in a sense. What are the specific choices involved in the title?


FW: The choice of the letters. Right. The choice of the type is the first thing that tells you something about my attitude toward the material. In this case, I deliberately chose rather simple but elegant lettering, which would be in contrast to some of the events you might see in the film. The first sound you hear is the sound of what? What’s under the main title? What’s the specific sound that you know the source of a moment later? It’s the sound of the camera. Then, the first sequence is the people being photographed. Why did I start the movie with that? What I’m trying to do is organize what I’m saying now around the issue of how you read a film and the implications of the particular choice of picture and sound. In the photography sequence, what do you learn that you didn’t know before?

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: Who the people are. Their characteristics, race, type, color, what they wear, their identification. They are people in search of welfare.

FW: But what do you learn specifically from their pictures?

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: The social type of people that they are. Medium class or lower medium class people.

FW: And what else do you learn from that?

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: If they’re young, if they’re old, if they’re black, if they’re white, if they’re beautiful, if they’re ugly, if they...

FW: Why do I want to make that point in the beginning of the movie?

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: You want to make clear who are the people that are going to apply for the welfare program.

FW: Sure. In saying that they come from all classes and different ethnicities and different races, I’m making a point which is contrary to the clichés about welfare in America, that most of the people on welfare are poor blacks and Hispanics. You see white people, you see Asian people, you see black people, you see Hispanic people.

ANSGAR SCHAFFER: Another thing you actually make sure is that you show how the State is treating its citizens because it is giving orders.

FW: That’s something else. What am I showing about how the State is treating its citizens? You learn the point about the variety of ethnicities and races. What else do you learn from that sequence?

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: We associate photography with something nice, and there they don’t look very pleased to be photographed. They look serious.

FW: Why are they being photographed?

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: They have to have an identity.

FW: Yeah, they have to have identity in order to get the money. What else do you learn from that sequence?

MADALENA MIRANDA: The frames look like prison shots, like when someone is being jailed.

FW: At least in America, when you go for a driver’s license, it’s also the same kind of shot. The association isn’t necessarily to a criminal. Although it can be, but it’s not limited to that. What else do you learn from the sequence?

PARTICIPANT: The image also conveys to me a sense of a mechanical, systematic way of treating people. You can feel that not only by the images, but especially by the sound of the camera, and also the way the lady said, ‘OK, you can sit down and wait.’ It was always the same treatment for different persons.

FW: OK, but do the shots also suggest that it’s a volume business? If there are a lot of people applying for welfare, does that mean they can be treated more in an individual basis, or does the volume require the State to treat them somewhat mechanically?

PARTICIPANT: There’s also the necessity to treat people that way, because of the numbers. The sound and the atmosphere created (particularly by the sound) indicated a recurrent and cyclic aspect of it. Almost as a factory assembly line.

FW: Right. That’s certainly one of the things that occurred to me, but the question is: is there something that counterbalances that? Does the need and the benefits of processing a lot of people at some speed balance the possible demeaning aspects of it resembling a factory assembly line?

PARTICIPANT: There isn’t a moral issue there. It’s a necessity.

FW: Well, some people might think there’s a moral issue, and that people should be treated differently from that.

PARTICIPANT: The people who work on welfare are also human beings, and maybe they are just tired or they don’t have good working conditions. The situation can reveal both sides of a problem, not only the people being photographed.

FW: Right. What else do you learn about the people from the photographs?

PARTICIPANT: It could be anyone.

FW: It could be anyone. What about the way they’re dressed? It could be anyone, but the people are basically telling us something about themselves by the clothes that they choose (whether it’s conscious or unconscious) to wear when they come to the welfare centre. What shot is the most dramatic example of that?

MIGUEL RIBEIRO: The fireman, I guess.

FW: The soldier. Why is that the most dramatic aspect of the way someone presents oneself?

MIGUEL RIBEIRO: Someone asks him to take off his hat and that’s the refusal of an identity. He had been putting on all the medals...

FW: He put on his uniform. He may just have come from an American Legion meeting, but you can make the assumption that he deliberately wore his uniform with his medals, because he felt badly about applying for welfare, and he wanted the people at the welfare centre to know that he’d served his country. It was a way of presenting himself in the most favorable light. He wasn’t some poor bum, he had served his country with distinction (if the medals in fact represent something as they do). So, you’re learning something about the people by the way they present themselves and the clothes that they’re wearing, and the way they pose their faces for the identity photographs. That sequence is a kind of prologue to the movie. What’s the next shot, after the photography sequence?

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: A general shot of the room.

FW: No. Outside of the building. I used the photography as a prologue and then, in a sense, the film starts. You have the traditional establishing shot of the outside of the building, so you know where you are (or you have a sense of where you might be). Once you’re inside the building, why do I choose to start with the group of shots that you see there? What do those shots tell you and what do they represent?

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: People waiting.

FW: People waiting. Yeah. What else?

MIGUEL RIBEIRO: I guess it’s Winter. It’s cold.

PARTICIPANT: All kinds of people. Some bums.

FW: All kinds of people. It’s the volume business again. You see different ages of people, you see children, you see men, you see women, you see old people, you see young people. Why do I use the shot of the young man sketching?

PARTICIPANT: To show this man is not getting welfare.

FW: He’s not getting welfare, because he’s sketching? Aren’t artists entitled to welfare?

MIGUEL RIBEIRO: I didn’t’ think that at all. I thought it transmitted that a person with artistic sensitivity could be at the welfare waiting for support.

FW: Yeah, it’s a suggestion of time, it’s a young person, it’s the fact that an artist is going on welfare. The fact that he is sketching it’s also an oldfashioned way (a 19th century or pre-film way) of reporting on what’s going on at the welfare centre. In addition to all the other reasons you suggested for that shot. For example, there’s a famous 19th century English writer who spent a lot of time in what they call ‘poor houses’, and there are sketches in the book of the equivalent of welfare recipients at the time. We have the group of people. What’s the sound track under the group of people?


FW: The numbers. OK. Is there any significance to that? Why are they assigned numbers? Is that an example of depersonalization or dehumanization, or could you make the argument that it’s a sign of respecting the privacy of the people that are waiting, so that their names are not revealed to the other people waiting?

CÁTIA SALGUEIRO: I don’t think it’s a matter of privacy, because they’re talking loud about the problems.

FW: It’s a question that this particular use of that sound raises, and it’s left for you to decide whether it’s a breach of their privacy or a respect for their privacy. At the same time, you also hear one of the welfare workers call out somebody’s name. He says, ‘Alexander Taswell.’ To use that sound (which is the natural sound under that waiting room), in the particular form that I use it, it’s simply meant to raise the question of privacy versus some humiliation for you to think about. Now, the first sequence with the Indian. Why is that the first talk sequence in the movie? What do you think I was thinking about (if anything) when I chose to start the movie with that sequence?

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: Discrimination.

FW: Discrimination. Sure, that’s certainly one aspect of it, because he’s talking about the Indians being kept on the reservation. What else does the idea of an Indian suggest in addition to discrimination?

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: The anger of the Indian.

FW: The anger. Yes.

PARTICIPANT: The original population of America.

FW: Right. One of the clichés about America is that it is a country of immigrants and, if the Indians in fact came from the Russian steppe 15000 years ago, they certainly arrived a long time earlier than the other immigrants. They were the original settlers of America. It’s meant just vaguely to suggest the American past before it was settled. What’s the Indian talking about with the welfare worker, and why do I include that part of the conversation?

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: About the Indian difference.

FW: That’s certainly there. He’s talking about the way Indians have been discriminated against, but there’s a specific subject of conversation between the Indian and the welfare worker that’s related to welfare.

JOANA CHADWICK PIMENTA: In spite of being the original, he’s not registered in the welfare system.

FW: Right. He’s saying he wants to cash a check. She’s saying that he can’t, because he doesn’t have the identity card from that particular welfare centre, and he needs an identity card from the branch of welfare that issued the check. He’s saying that he doesn’t understand why that’s the case. Like so many other aspects in Welfare, you can interpret it in a couple of ways. You can say that the system is indifferent and not making it easy for this man to cash the check, or you could say that, when the State is distributing billions of dollars every year to people, it has to be accountable to the citizens whose tax money is being used for its actions. You can make the argument either way, depending on your attitude. What else is going on in that sequence between the Indian and the welfare worker?

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: Why did you choose such a close lens?

FW: Of the Indian? Because he has a great face. It’s a movie. What I’m trying to do is to have you recreate what was going on or some of the things that I was trying to think about and, inferentially, any of us who are making documentary films have to think about when we’re evaluating whether to use a sequence and how to use it. This aspect of it (as I tried to suggest yesterday) has absolutely nothing or very little to do with filmmaking technique. It has to do with your capacity to analyze and understand what other people are saying or doing and, inferentially, what you the filmmaker are saying and doing. There’s something else going on. There’s something very personal the Indian says to the welfare worker.

PARTICIPANT: The earring.

FW: The earring, right, which is a very nice personal touch. If you’re doing a fiction film, it would be a great imaginative thing to put in that line of dialogue, because it personalizes the connection between them immediately. It meant that he was looking at that welfare worker as a woman, and he was saying, ‘You’re loosing your earring.’

MIGUEL RIBEIRO: Don’t you think that’s aggressive instead of polite?

FW: You’re completely free to interpret it as aggressive too. That’s not the way I interpret it but, again, the reality is ambiguous.

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: He was saying he wanted to be treated as a human being, so, the first thing he did was to treat her as a human being. That was interesting.

FW: That’s right, and he treated her as a human being in the way he talked about the earring.

PARTICIPANT: Is there also a typical person that goes and applies for welfare?

FW: Well, I don’t know. One of the things I learned in making the movie, which is true of all these situations (and perhaps you might agree with me, if you saw the whole movie), is that you can no longer talk about typical anything. The experience of being at a place like the welfare centre for six or eight weeks completely destroys the clichés. That’s one of the interesting things that I learned. Clichés are sort of markers that help you get started and thinking about it, but the total experience completely undermines the ones that I started with. I may end up with new clichés, but they’re different ones.

PARTICIPANT: Is that why you put him in the first place?

FW: That’s one of the reasons, but I’m trying to suggest that there are a variety of them. After that, there is a whole medley of shots of different people. There’s no way you could know this without seeing the film, but a lot of the people you see in those short cutaway sequences are people you meet in a more comprehensive or more detailed way later on. They are people about whom there are major sequences in the film. Why is the second major talking sequence the one with the two that I would describe as the happy couple? What do you learn from that sequence?

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: It raises the question of truth. Are they saying the truth? Is that what really happened to them or...

FW: And specifically whether the truth is necessary in order to become eligible to get money. That’s certainly one thing, but what else do you learn?

PARTICIPANT: The difference between being asked and asking in that situation, because he was also working there before (or in the social system service).

CÁTIA SALGUEIRO: He should know the difference but he doesn’t. He says, ‘I’m just trying to answer your questions.’

FW: Right. The man of the couple had worked in the welfare office. You can speculate that one of the reasons that he’s lying is because he has misinterpreted the rules and he thinks he has to lie in order to become eligible.

CÁTIA SALGUEIRO: Or that when he’s facing that moment, he’s just trying to answer the questions the best he can.

FW: You have to make up your own mind whether he’s lying. To me, it was always very clear that he was, but one of the interesting things was that, despite that, they were still given welfare – at the end they say that they’re eligible for money for temporary housing. How do you know that the welfare worker thought they were lying? She does a specific thing: she holds her nose, which is to suggest it stinks. If you believe in non-verbal communication, that’s a classical example. There are many examples of such in all documentary films, because you’re reading people’s reaction to what’s going on by the gestures they make or the expressions on their faces. What else do you learn in that sequence?

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: She’s telling the truth.

FW: She’s telling the truth. You believe her, but you learn something about her life story. I mean, it’s a very sad story: her mother hangs up on her and says she’s going to hang herself, she hasn’t seen her father since she was six years old, her sister won’t have anything to do with her... She probably was telling the truth. She may have been too dumb to lie (which is my judgment), and she had all these multiple diseases for which she may or may not have been getting treatment. In a more abstract way, what does the sequence suggest about some people who apply for welfare?

CARLOS RUIZ CARMONA: It’s quite complex. The people who are so desperate as to go there, I wonder whether they tell the truth or not. People can be very creative to ask for money. One of the things that I find very interesting is that you in a way criticize or make us think about the welfare system (whether it works or not, the process), and also about people and how we actually maybe want to take advantage of the system. It’s not just about the welfare system, it’s about human beings and how we behave and move within a system.

FW: That’s true. One of the reasons that made me think she was telling the truth is that she didn’t lie about being married. She says to the welfare worker, ‘I thought he was married’, and if they had worked out some kind of conspiracy to conceal the fact that they were both married, she wouldn’t say that.

CARLOS RUIZ CARMONA: It made me think maybe they hadn’t met very long before, and hadn’t planned that well. Maybe they hadn’t thought about it and it just popped out. They said, ‘Let’s go for it and see what happens’, and it was a mistake. I read it from a different point of view, I didn’t read it like you.

FW: That, again, is an example of the ambiguity of the reality of the situation, which makes it more complicated. It’s related to the question whether, even if they may be lying, they’re entitled to welfare, and what the obligation of the State is to provide for people even when they’re lying. Or whether it’s understandable that, given their circumstances and their various disabilities, they would lie. And whether morality has anything to do with eligibility for welfare.

CARLOS RUIZ CARMONA: When I see this film, one thing I find very interesting is the system. There are people with problems (the story she was telling about her life was very dramatic), and it’s funny how society tries to deal with our problems. Maybe a food chain kind of process or whatever, you know? I see this welfare system, this woman trying to solve things, her system of filling the form, then going to the fourth floor, this other woman that may or not be lying to a prejudiced system, trying to survive... You see this whole circus of life in front of you, and you think, ‘What the hell is all this about? Is this what life is about?’ We live, we survive. It doesn’t have to be this one, in many other situations in life you’re inside a process, a system of communication, dealing with life and things, and you don’t have the distance to work out how one thing fits the other and you are in the middle...

FW: I’m glad these points were raised. These are precisely the things that any film person editing this kind of material has to try and think about, in order to evaluate it. First, to decide whether to use it, and then at what point to use it and what the relationship is between sequences before and after it. For example, the more abstract point that I was trying to suggest with that sequence is whether there are some people who, because of physical or mental disabilities, are incapable of performing any work or any kind of sustained work. What’s the State’s obligation, in a democratic society, to provide support for them (whether or not they’re lying), and how do you make the judgment about their capacity to do work that would take them off State support.
The process that I just went through with you in relation to Welfare, those of you who make movies know that it is the kind of process that you have to do in evaluating any kind of material. The most difficult part of it (and the most interesting) is certainly this effort to analyze what you have, and the implications of the behavior that you’re watching, and how you present and order those sequences, so that it’s conveyed in film terms to somebody else.

MIGUEL RIBEIRO: In the scene of the couple, when their story is starting to crumble down and she’s saying she’s sorry, she’s out of focus and in the foreground of the medium shot. Did you want it to be that way? The idea that comes across is that the story was made up by the guy, because he was on focus and she was talking but she was out of focus.

FW: No, that was just because we didn’t know she was going to talk next, and the man was within focus and she was out of focus. It was just chance. It would be pretentious of me to say otherwise, but maybe next time I will.

PARTICIPANT: Was there a democrat or a republican government in the States at that time?

FW: The film was shot in 1973 or 4. It was just at the transition between Nixon and Ford, but it was a republican presidency. Actually, Nixon wasn’t bad on welfare. There was a reform that took place when he was president that was supervised by a man who is a very important democrat, and was working as Nixon’s domestic advisor (he subsequently became a senator for New York). A man called Daniel Patrick Monahan, who had been a professor at Harvard, and whose field of study was welfare. I hate to say anything good about Nixon but, in fact, there were significant welfare reforms that benefited people on welfare, because Nixon paid attention to Monahan.

PARTICIPANT: The fact that you started this film with young people makes a point about welfare, projects it into the future. We think about this couple and this Indian guy, their lives depending all the way through from this welfare. If you had started the film with old people, we would think this is how society works, some people get older and then they...

FW: They have no choice.

PARTICIPANT: Yeah. The choice of starting with the young gives it more strength.

JMC: One should underline the fact that, the film being about the reverse side of everything, very early you establish the fact that the welfare is not just a relationship between some kind of victims of the system and the people representing the power, the State. Very early you invite us to think about the other side of the balcony. When you turn the camera to the woman and she has that gesture, you for the first time seriously think that there’s a human being that has to take decisions. She’s not just a cliché representative of the State, she is another side of the human circus, in a way.

FW: That’s right, the film does try to show what it’s like to be a welfare worker. Try to imagine what it would be like to be that woman who heard the story from the couple. Having worked at that welfare centre for twenty five years, hearing those kinds of stories eight hours a day, five days a week. You might feel you’re helping people to some extent, but it might provoke a rather dishonest view about human nature as well. Now, I’d like to show you the sequence from Basic Training that I described before, and we’ll have the same kind of conversation about it.

JMC: Basic Training was made in 1971. Before Welfare, actually. It’s one of your early films and, as it was said, the whole film is about the army training program.

FW: It’s about the army basic training during the Vietnam War.

[Projection of an excerpt from Basic Training.]

FW: I had about five hours of rushes for the events that you see in that six or seven minutes. What do you literally learn in that sequence? What specifically is going on?

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: They’re trying to stay alive, even in a place like that.

FW: Basic training is a form of education which most armies in the world are quite good at, because they’ve done it so much. By the time this movie was made, about forty million Americans had gone through basic training from 1939 to 1970. What are the trainees being taught, which is the first thing that the sequence is showing?


FW: To be quiet, OK. They’re going to the jungle. To be quiet. What else?


FW: Being taught camouflage, yeah. What else?

CATARINA MOURÃO: To manage in the dark.

FW: How to move in the dark, and search for land mines or trip wires that will set off explosives.


MIGUEL COELHO: When they are singing together, they are learning how to stay united in group, right? This is collective singing.

FW: The singing in the beginning of the sequence is also a kind of symbolic expression of their fear. The song they’re singing is, ‘Mr. Nixon drop the bomb, I don’t wanna go to Nam.’ Rather primitive rimes, but it is an expression of the natural fear of going off to Vietnam and to the jungle, and all of these things they are being taught. The issue for me as an editor was how to organize the material. They spent a couple of days doing this as part of their training, so I had to have a theory about what shots I would use and how I would organize them and what the particular structure that I chose would suggest. Obviously part of it was meant to literally suggest those aspects of the training the group of you just described, but what else does it suggest?

CARLOS RUIZ CARMONA: To be a team, work as a team, move as a team, do everything as a team.

FW: That’s certainly part of it. I’ll give you a clue: I start off with the camouflage shots (that’s certainly one of the first things they learn). What is the significance, apart from the fact that the trainees are being taught camouflage and how to hide themselves from the enemy? Is there any metaphoric value in that?


FW: A ritual, right. Once you accept the idea of a ritual, then the question is: does it make you think of rituals in primitive tribes? For example, I once saw a movie about a war between two tribes in New Guinea (a great movie by Bob Connolly [Black Harvest, 1992]), and you see them putting on their war paint. It’s certainly true it’s camouflage, but it resembles war paint. It’s meant to suggest the whole notion of people killing each other as being a remnant of primitive kinds of warfare and those primitive instincts of aggression (which we all have), which are more or less kept under control in civilian life, but which the army is extremely good... The whole point of army basic training (no matter what army or what country) is to encourage young men and women to release the primitive instincts of aggression in the service of the State. In other words, to make it OK to kill people. One of the ways that I try to suggest that in that sequence is by showing the make-up, and my associations to the idea of the primitive ritual that was used (and is still used) in primitive tribes before battle. At the same time, I tried to cut it like a dance. I try to work out a relationship of the movement of the various shots. The hand going down in the ground, the hand going under the wire, the hand holding the riffle, the hand being raised. What’s the music of the sequence? What’s the sound?

PARTICIPANT: The crickets.

FW: The crickets, right. The first part is cut to the crickets and the second part is cut to the machine gun.

MIGUEL RIBEIRO: An aspect I found very particular of the sequences is the contrast in sound. When we start, they are singing and it’s night fall (not night, the end of the day), but then it’s completely dark and there’s silence (not silence, but the sounds of nature). The contrast in sound reveals a tension: the violence of the military.

FW: Or the anticipation of violence. Any other comments about that?

CATARINA MOURÃO: They’re all group shots, so the individuality is lost. It’s like they say, ‘Leave your personality behind.’ It’s almost like a brainwash. You have to get into another skin.

FW: It’s perfectly reasonable to characterize it as a brainwash, but it’s a bit like the ambiguity of some of the sequences in Welfare. One can say, ‘What’s the value of this kind of training?’ It has two obvious values. First is: it teaches the soldiers how to survive in conditions that they’re about to be placed in. The second is that, in terms of the ideology that their activities represent, it makes it potentially possible for them to win. It also means that, if they follow the rules as the rules are known, there’s a greater chance they’ll live. You can call it brainwashing but, once someone has agreed to serve in the armed forces (unless they’re involuntarily in there, and now America and most countries have volunteer armies – although it wasn’t true then, this was the tail end of the draft in America), they have voluntarily made the choice to participate. You can say they’ve been brainwashed to participate, but I think that’s too simplistic.

BRAM RELOUW: The issue of individuality is very nicely done. In the beginning, you see the people marching by, and they are all dressed the same, they are a group. You follow some faces, and at the end of that shot the camera goes down and only looks at the shadows. It’s becoming less individual, in a way. After that, there’s the painting of the faces, which is again individualizing in some way. So, both aspects are there.

FW: To slightly go back for a moment to the brainwashing issue: it’s brainwashing in part depending on what historical period it is. You don’t think it’s brainwashing in 1939 or 40 when America (or England) was mobilizing to fight the Germans. Then, you were serving your country to help the world get rid of a horrible dictator. Most of us would probably characterize it as brainwashing now, because we’re against the war in Iraq.

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: I didn’t mean brainwashing in that way, but in the sense that you have to leave your idiosyncrasy behind, in order to survive in the service of the group.

FW: You have to sacrifice your individuality in the service of the group, but it’s a basic rule that combat platoons survive, because they’re fighting not so much for ideological purposes, but for their buddies and because they know their buddies are fighting for them. There are all these accounts and novels of war by participants making that point over and over again.

SUSANA MARQUES: The fact that the shots are very physical (the legs, the arms, the hands, the precise movements, that kind of choreography you were talking about) gives the feeling that they are learning how to move. They’re becoming soldiers, they’re becoming bodies. More than brainwashed, that was the feeling I got. They’re just physical bodies.

FW: Yes. They are being trained to use their bodies for a particular task. That’s certainly a big part of it.

MIGUEL COELHO: Can you talk about the rhythm of this scene? In Belfast too, there are long sequences where all the shots are more or less the same length. It’s a very good physical sensation for the viewer that you never fetishize the shot. You never use a shot or something you have elected as very beautiful for a long time. Did this come naturally to your filmmaking, or did you develop it?

FW: It’s hard to know. It came naturally, in the sense that I didn’t do a lot of research to discover it. It really came out of trying to solve problems. In the case of Basic Training, it came out of how to solve the problem of presenting this important aspect of the training in a short period of time in a way that worked in movie terms. I could have cut that sequence (as most sequences) in a variety of ways. I chose to do it this way. There’s a connection between the way this sequence is cut and the way the sardine sequence is cut in Belfast. I was very conscious when I had the choice of how to cut the sardine sequence that, in a sense, it was an extension of this sequence in Basic Training and its ideas. The music is initially the sardines swishing down, being transferred into the tanks, but it ultimately becomes the rattling of the cans and the noise of the scissors. The rhythm of the sequence is determined by those sounds, and the cuts are based on their relationship to those sounds. Where it came from, who knows?

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: Was there any light in the night sequence?

FW: No, there was no light. It’s all natural light. I’ve only lit, in the documentaries, maybe two or three times. Occasionally, I’ll change a light bulb from a 60 watt to a 100 watt in an office or something. The only sequence that was really lit... I did a movie about a monastery [Essene, 1972], and the church was too dark. We strung some lights over the nave of the church and hooked the lights up to the light switch, so that, whenever we went into the church, we just flicked the light switch. I think there were four lights in the length of the nave. In Law and Order [1969] and in Domestic Violence, [2001] there’s one sequence with a sun gun, but it was used in each of those situations, because the rooms were otherwise completely dark. I knew that we might be in that kind of situation, so I had a sun gun with me. Those are the only examples of lighting. You can’t say, ‘Please wait before you hit this person or before you swear at them or before you do whatever you’re going to do, because we need forty minutes to set up the lights.’ It deprives the scene of any spontaneity and authenticity.

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: Sometimes you film in the same room lots of times.

FW: For my kind of movie, you can’t do it if it interferes with the action. If you know you’re going to be in the same room as we were in the church... We had to light, otherwise we couldn’t have shot the church, and I knew we were going to be in it quite frequently.

PARTICIPANT: The army is the strongest American institution, the most representative of a world power. I’m wondering how you managed to get in there and film. Perhaps you asked permission before, but it’s the army. How did you manage to get in without the person who allowed you to film those images being afraid you might criticize? You could be a communist – I see you as a critical person.

FW: Basically, I got permission because I asked for it. One of the many paradoxes about American life is that it’s widely respected (or at least it was until the Bush administration) that governmental institutions are supposed to be open, and that the citizens of a country are supposed to know how their government is run. In other words, the government is supposed to be transparent. To get permission for Basic Training, I simply got in touch with the Public Information Office at the Pentagon, and said I’d like to make a movie about army basic training. They asked me to send them a letter, they requested to see some of my other films. I sent them the High School [1968] movie and I thought I’d never get permission, but a few weeks later I got a call from a colonel in the Pentagon, saying he really liked the movie, it reminded him of an American short story writer by the name of John Cheever and when did I want to start. The experience of getting permission was, again, contrary to the cliché. Since then, I’ve made other movies about the military. I’ve made one about missile launching crew training [Missile, 1987]. It’s basically a manual on how to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, and I had no trouble getting permission for that either. I made another movie about army maneuvers in West Germany [Manoeuvre, 1979] and, again, it was quite easy to get permission.
Recently an American filmmaker made a movie about a hospital in the green zone in Baghdad (which I haven’t seen, but I understand it’s a great movie). He simply followed the work of the doctors as the Iraqi and American military casualties were coming in with their legs blown off or arms missing or heads blown open. Apparently, it’s a very powerful anti-war movie, and yet the filmmaker was allowed to make it. Despite the controls that the Cheney-Bush administration has been trying to impose on the news coming out of Iraq. The reason why people are given permission is the idea of free speech and the importance of the First Amendment indoors (even though, in different periods in American history, it’s come under attack and its power has been somewhat diminished). Documentary filmmakers, as well as the general public, are the beneficiaries of that really important aspect of the American Constitution. That’s perhaps a long way to answer, but I think it’s really relevant, because I don’t get permission by chance. I get it, because the people with the authority to give it believe (either personally or institutionally) in the First Amendment. That’s a very important aspect of American life, which is often forgotten amid all the justified criticisms.

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: Then, why aren’t there more journalists going there and filming? For example, in Iraq. We don’t see that.

FW: Lots of journalists have gone there. I haven’t seen them all either, but there have been a couple of films following platoons of soldiers on their work. Not lots, but I can think of five or six that have come out. Another reason has to do with the fact that it’s extremely dangerous, and not all filmmakers, quite understandably, want to take the risk. The film that I mentioned a moment ago was shot in the green zone, which is the fortified area where the Americans have their headquarters. It’s the old area where Saddam ran the government, and it’s a fort. It’s a large area that has walls and is sandbagged, and you need special cards to get in. In Iraqi terms, that was reasonably safe, but I don’t know many filmmakers (particularly with families) who would want to go out on patrol in humvees with American soldiers in Iraq, because there would be the terrible risk you get killed or maimed. It’s not just a question of the government perhaps not encouraging it, it’s also the question of its enormous risk. Most of the print journalists in Iraq don’t leave their hotels or only do it very briefly, because they don’t want to be kidnapped and they don’t want to be killed. That certainly affects the quality of the news that’s coming out, but it’s not solely because of United States government censorship, it’s because there’s a real danger.

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: Sixty four journalists were killed in Iraq.

FW: I don’t know if that many journalists were killed in the Second World War.

MIGUEL COELHO: Nobody enters Guantanamo.

FW: No. That’s absolutely right, and they should. That’s an example of the way that the Bush administration has prevented events from being covered. There have been journalists that got allowed to got to Guantanamo, but I think their visits have been sort of Potemkin village visits, and they have not really been allowed to see what’s going on.

CAROLINE BARRAUD: There was a film made by Erik Gandini [Gitmo, 2005]. He had authorization to go inside and make some interviews with the army guy there, but censorship controlled what they were talking about. They were not allowed to say anything about anything.

PARTICIPANT: A general question about how you work as a director/producer. How does your office work? What happens before you go on a shoot? Do you have people to help?

FW: In my office, there are two other people working, and they’re primarily concerned with the distribution of my movies. Thirty six years ago, I set up my own distribution company, because I got cheated so badly by the regular distributors I figured I had nothing to loose.
We’ll now see the beginning of Aspen [1991]. This is a film that was shot in Aspen, Colorado, which (for those of you who don’t know) is a very famous ski resort where a lot of very rich Americans have their third or fourth homes.

[Projection of an excerpt from Aspen.]

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: Can I say something in the beginning?

FW: First Amendment.

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: Is Aspen in Tibet? Is the monastery in Lhasa? Are you trying to tell us that something specific is going on in Aspen religiously, because of the heights, the mountains, the altitude of the Himalayas? Why did you start that way?

FW: There’s a different kind of delirium going on. The monastery is in Aspen, but they don’t look quite Tibetan yet. Just from the seven or eight minutes of the film you’ve seen, what’s your speculation as to why I started that way? It’s really not a fair question, because you haven’t seen the whole film.

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: I was very surprised by the way you started it. The idea that I had of Aspen was completely different. I had no idea that there was a monastery and, all of a sudden, I see all these rituals, these people praying in this monastery, the first shot of the mountains. I think they are transferring this delirium to Aspen.

FW: Certainly in starting the film with the shots of the mountains and the beauty of the natural surroundings, and then going to the sequence in the monastery, there’s an effort to suggest something timeless. Not only about the existence of nature, but also about the human issues that one may see examples of later in the film. In the hymn, they’re singing, ‘World without end, Amen.’ I made a movie about a monastery and there are meant to be echoes of that. It is called Essene [1972] and it’s about an Anglican Benedictine monastery that’s trying to live in the 20th century according to the Rule of Saint Benedict. It was formed in the 4th century, and is a kind of constitution of that Anglican Benedictine monastery. The issues the monks are dealing with in the monastery movie are the same kinds of issues that were not only dealt with in the 4th century, but are dealt with among any group of people who are trying to live together in a community. There is a reference not only to the earlier film, but particularly to the issues that it raised. In the movie about the community of Aspen, you’ll see different kinds of resolutions of those issues than in the movie about the community of people living in a monastery. I open with the monastery for some of those reasons, and to provide a framework for the rest of the movie. The second sequence is the sequence of the rancher and the cattle. Why do I have that?

ANSGAR SCHAFFER: Traditionally, man is collaborating with nature and nature is collaborating with man, and afterwards you have a new relationship between mankind and nature, which is just fun. Nature is serving fun purposes and nothing else.

FW: Right. It’s also a reference to the movie I made on meat [Meat, 1976], because it opens up with cattle on a range being rounded up for transportation to a slaughter house. But it’s primarily for the reasons that you suggest. Then the skiing sequences are, obviously, to show that there’s good skiing in Aspen (although the movie is not meant to be its promotion), but it’s another transformation of nature. It also shows something about the skiing conditions and the different skiing capacities of the skiers. Why is the first major talk sequence the plastic surgery?

PARTICIPANT: The balloon.

FW: Oh, the balloon. Sorry, I was jumping to the plastic surgery. The balloon.

ANSGAR SCHAFFER: This is a marriage service for fun.

FW: That’s certainly one reason. Right.


FW: As long as the air doesn’t fall out of the balloon.

CATARINA MOURÃO: I think you’re using humor and irony. It’s in all your films, but here it’s done in a different way. You’re playing with contradiction. You start in the monastery with close-ups, and it seems quite ethereal. When you open up, you see them with their spooky robes, but then you see their trainers... The same with the scene of the plastic surgery. When you see the guy who’s presenting it and his nose, you think, ‘Why doesn’t he have surgery?’ In the balloon scene, the question I had is the noise. I imagine you did it on purpose, to have the sound when they’re kissing and then stop it. Why did you do that?

FW: I always have to turn the question around. Why do you think I did it?

CATARINA MOURÃO: For me it serves the purpose of humor.

FW: It’s not insignificant that it’s a hot air balloon.

CARLOS RUIZ CARMONA: When I saw the scene with the plastic surgery, it made sense for all of these events to take place in this area of Aspen with beautiful mountains. Everything has got to do with the plastic surgery and what they’re talking about, and his nose and the concept of beauty. Including the balloon floating and love. It could be a question: why are they marrying there?

FW: Those are all points that those sequences are trying to raise. They’re used in a particular way in order to, in a sense, announce the themes of the movie early on. One of the big issues in organizing material of the sort that I always have is how you find a form, a structure and a story. I said yesterday that the real story I’m trying to deal with is always abstract. More than it is in a traditional film with a beginning, a middle and an end that is organized around specific things that happen to specific people. The effort is to have it be a more abstract story dealing with ideas. I try to find a way of announcing, in the beginning of the film, the more general themes that it is going to deal with and, in this case, certainly the idea of transformation is one of the themes. The transformation of nature, of individuals, the transformation from a rural life of the west of cowboys and cattle to a chic resort that’s primarily for some of the richest people in the country. I’m trying to introduce in the beginning some of the themes around the idea of transformation both physical and natural and spiritual.

CARLOS RUIZ CARMONA: They’re no less associated to Aspen and that place, no?

FW: The place presents the opportunity to raise these issues, but the kind of thing I’m talking about has nothing to do literally with film. It has to do with your response (you, the filmmakers) to the situation you’re in, which inturn affects what you shoot but particularly the way you choose to use what you shoot. The training (if that’s the right word) that has been most useful for me in making documentary movies has not been the technical training, but reading and trying to think about what I’ve read.

CARLOS RUIZ CARMONA: The associations you make between different sequences (shots, events that take place) – it’s like writing, in a way. You’re writing. It’s a language.

FW: It’s related to writing. The thing that’s been most useful to me in making documentaries are the poetry courses I took in college where I was taught (or at least I tried to teach myself) to read poems carefully – to figure out what the writer was trying to do with a particular choice of words, the rhythm and the order and structure of the poem. Similarly, when you’re making one of these movies, the crucial aspect (assuming you can do the technical aspects of it and collect the material) is how you organize it. The way you do it is totally dependent on your capacity to think about what’s in front of your eyes, which in turn is related to your general experience. Obviously the sequence with the plastic surgeons is also funny (it’s meant to be), and it’s shot in a way that underlines the comedy, but it’s directly related to the idea of transformation, which in turn has its literary antecedents in some of the great books about transformation like the Metamorphosis. It may sound as a pretentious reference, but one of the things that unites some of the ideas in a lot of films is the wish by some people to change other people in a variety of ways.

CARLOS RUIZ CARMONA: It makes me think a bit of Russian montage. Somebody said that all that matters is where you place the shots. Somebody could be crying and you could think that they’re sad but, if you change the order of the shots or the associations of meaning, they could be crying, because they’re happy. In a way it’s all about the association and meaning you give the shots in the context of where they are.

FW: Well, deception is characteristic of filmmaking.

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: You already said that Aspen is the right place to make business, because these are very rich people going to Aspen, not only from America, but even from Portugal – a former Minister of Defense, Dr. Paulo Portas, spends his vacation in Aspen and always comes back with a tan. It is the right place to sell this kind of transformation. You will probably find a garage selling Rolls Royce or Cadillac’s in Aspen, because it creates all those opportunities. Along the film, there will probably be more sequences where you see people trying to sell a lot of things – beauty creams and spas and things like that (like the beauty transformation).

FW: Not necessarily. You see them in their daily life there. But in any case...

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: Catarina said something that is very important in the beginning of this film. I find it a very ironic thing, like a comedy. I would go as far as to say that all those cows that we saw in the beginning will end up being nice juicy stakes in the restaurants in Aspen.

FW: You have to see the film to find out. I’m not going to give it away. In any case, what I’ve been trying to do in discussing all these films in this kind of detail is simply emphasize the need to analyze and to let your mind go, in terms of thinking about the implications and significance. Any documentary movie has the potential of operating on a variety of levels from the most literal, the most specific to the most abstract. In my case, the effort is always to try to have them operate in a variety of levels. It’s partially dependent on a kind of associations that I have to the material, and my success in conveying those associations to people who don’t have the same opportunity that I do, which is just to study the material for a year or as long as I want, and to edit it in such a way that that’s conveyed on the first showing.

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: I was associating the beginning of Aspen with Model [1980]. This beginning is about the artificial creation of an ideal world by transforming nature. Then, when we go to the plastic surgery, there’s the transformation of the nose and face. So, it’s about how to create an image and perform it. In the same way, Model is one of the films where you reflect more on the construction of an image or of a world.

FW: That’s what Model is about.

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: Model is also a reflection on filmmaking itself, on creating a new world, an ambiance. The shots of the church and nature are saying, ‘This is what people look for when they go to Aspen: a world where there is silence, time to think, to reflect, to be around nature.’ At the same time, it reminds us of Meat, the opposite thing.

MIGUEL RIBEIRO: In relation to the scene of the balloon, the marriage, it is obvious to me that there’s a displacement. What was supposed (under traditional laws) to be in the church is now in another place. Mr. Wiseman, you film a lot of churches and temples. What is your relationship with God?

FW: I’m trying to find out. It’s come out more in recent years, because of the political forces and the evangelicals in support of the Republican Party, but America is a very religious country. I don’t think I really realized that until I started to go around a lot and make movies and see, in fact, the importance of religion in so many people’s lives. It just had never been particularly important in my life, and I had never really thought about it very much.

ANDRÉ DIAS: Mr. Wiseman, before you finish, I’d like you to please recall an episode you once told in an interview, regarding your non-interference and its limits as to what’s happening in front of the camera. I think you were referring to Law and Order [1969], when you were accompanying a squad and they found a suspect. They were exerting violence against him. Can you recall?

FW: What you’re referring to is a sequence in Law and Order.

ANDRÉ DIAS: Is it in the film? I haven’t seen it.

FW: It’s in the film, yeah. In order to make an arrest for prostitution in Kansas City, Missouri, where Law and Order was shot, the police had to have a price and an act. At least in 1968, when the movie was made, you had to know how much the prosecutor was going to charge, and you had to have the specific act that she was going to perform for money. The way the police generally arrested prostitutes was that an undercover policeman would pretend to be a costumer. We spent the night in the vice squad car and, at two or three in the morning, got a call from a member of the vice squad who had picked up a woman. He tried to arrest her and she’d fled the scene. We got there and the member of the vice squad, who was dressed in ordinary clothes, said that he had got a price and an act from the woman. That basically required the policeman to get into bed with the woman (or just about) and, presumably, at the last moment, arrest her. In this case, when he arrested the woman and led her from the hotel, she knocked him down the stairs and fled. He got on his radio, called the people in the vice squad and we came to the hotel. The night porter said the woman had gone to the basement, so we went there looking for her. That was the situation where we had the sun gun, because there was no light, the basement was very dark. One of the policemen found the woman hiding under some old furniture and he dragged her out. The sun gun was on and, in front of the camera, in front of us, he began to strangle her. Literally. He had his arm around her neck and after twenty or thirty seconds he let her go. She turned to the other policeman that was standing next to her and said, ‘He was trying to strangle me.’ The other policeman said, ‘Oh, no, you were just imagining that.’ We were making the film and subsequently the audience sees exactly what happened. One of the things that came up is whether I would have intervened. It’s easy for me to say, ‘If it had gone on longer, I would have intervened.’ I like to think that, but fortunately I didn’t have to. If I had intervened, it wouldn’t have necessarily meant that I couldn’t continue making the film. It would have meant that the word would have gone out among the policemen that I was a wise guy, and I knew their business better than they did, and the other policemen should be careful dealing with me. Fortunately, the policeman stopped strangling her, and I was able to get the sequence, and I used it in the final film.
About a year later, there was a police chiefs’ convention (in Hawaii, I think), and the chief of police in Kansas City was asked by some of the others why he let me make the film. They particularly cited that sequence that I’ve just described as one that gave police a bad name, and they said to him that he’d made a great mistake in allowing it to be filmed. Totally contrary to cliché, the chief said to the other police chiefs: ‘If you guys think that doesn’t happen in your department, you’ve got your head in the sand.’ Despite that scene and some other scenes that showed some brutal police behavior, the police chief in Kansas City generally liked the film, because he thought it showed a rather balanced view of police behavior. It showed them doing some cruel things, some indifferent things and many kind things.
In the context of American politics in 1968, it shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was, because the film was shot a few months after the Chicago Police had rioted a Democratic Party convention, and had been quite brutal against protesters on the street. The generally accepted view of police was that they were all pigs. Certainly their behavior in Chicago was brutal, as was the behavior in trying to strangle the woman accused of prostitution, but if one says that’s the only thing about police that’s inaccurate. When I rode on police cars for six weeks, I saw lots of kind and considerate behavior on the part of the police, and the film reflects all of those things. It’s more acknowledged now than it was in the political context of 68, but in that context it was important to show that police brutality, when it exists, is terrible, but is only one aspect of human brutality. When you ride around the police cars for about twenty minutes, you see the horrible things that people do to each other that make it necessary to have police in the first place. While I’m not excusing police brutality, I’m saying that it can’t be ripped out of the context of generalized human brutality, and the film, among other things, tries to make that point. That’s a long answer to your question, but I think that’s what you were referring to.

CATARINA ALVES COSTA: It’s interesting how America has this Hollywood tradition of fiction films always having the bad and the good guy, and how your films are so much about this ambiguity and contradiction of people and society. You always reflect on this ambiguity, giving us both sides of the same aspect at the same time. You make us think that things are much more complex and that’s one characteristic of documentary, because it’s really not controlling life.

JMC: Fred, we come to the end. Our deeps thanks. Will you come next year?

FW: I would like to!

Doc's Kingdom  |  Casa do Cinema, Rua da Rosa, 277, 2º - 1200-385 Lisboa, Portugal  |  +351 218 883 093  |  docskingdom@docskingdom.org