The Message to Man in Russia is Urbi et Orbi

in 26th Message to Man International Film Festival Saint Petersburg

by Maksim Kaziuchits

Screenings of four films by the outstanding American documentary director Frederick Wiseman were among the most significant events at this year’s Message to Man festival. His classic films of the 1960s and 70s, so treasured by film lovers, were screened from original 16mm prints.

Until recently in Russia, Wiseman was known mainly among film critics and academics. Message to Man has given everyone else in Russia the opportunity to discover Wiseman’s masterpieces. Film and TV professionals as well as the general public could experience the lucid, light style of his observational documentaries. The main subject of the selected films – Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Law and Order (1969) and In Jackson Heights (2015) – are freedom, humanity and human dignity. Wiseman’s work offers an enduring resistance to totalitarianism, showing that the will and spirit of man are stronger than any national borders or political institutions. Through these four films, you come to understand the evolution of his documentary style. Despite their seeming simplicity, the cinematography and editing have become more and more complex.

The films are dedicated to a theme once identified by Sartre: that man is an open project. For many years, Wiseman has convinced international audiences that a human being is too complicated and controversial to make an “objective” study of. Titicut Follies is a clear example of his observational method and unique style of editing. The film takes place over several weeks the crew spent in the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts, USA, where they filmed patients with mental conditions. Wiseman tries to show the heterogeneous nature of the patients in this closed, isolated institution. Some patients have committed murder or sexual assault, but others have come to be treated voluntarily. The film’s message is that, in the Western world, the institution of health has lost its humanity and can literally be hazardous to people.

High School is an ingenious portrait of the US in the 60s. The film is shot from the point of view of ordinary high school students. Old and new traditions, prejudices and superstitions, are juxtaposed here. The conflict between generations, teachers and students represents the complicated transformation of American society.

Intentionally or not, Law and Order has laid the foundation for numerous documentary films and TV shows, such as Fox TV’s Cops. On the big screen, we feel how intensely Wiseman’s handheld camera and editing affects the audience. Law and Order is about the complicated and dangerous job which US police officers face every day. Its subjects are cops, social workers and sometimes nurses. Wiseman emphasizes that he is deeply concerned about the violence which is closely connected with the work of the police. He asks where we draw the line between “necessary” force and violence. An example is the scene in which a young African-American woman suspected of prostitution is violently captured by an officer, who chokes her without bringing any charges or reading her legal rights.

In Jackson Heights, a film about the “immigrant community”, is Wiseman’s 40th and latest masterpiece. His technique is taken to a new level, and functions as a model for observational cinema. The 190-minute film is devoted to the neighborhood of Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, a place well-known for its multiculturalism, since its residents speak 167 languages! We see the daily problems faced by people in different communities. Members of the LGBT community are concerned by the violation of their civil rights. Immigrants from Latin America are threatened by the growth of malls, which force out small businesses. We also witness the elderly Jewish community acknowledging International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The film features many motifs and quotations from Wiseman’s earlier work. The scene on the small poultry farm certainly reminds us of Meat (1976). However, there is a basic difference between these two films. All of the characters in Meat (workers and butchers killing cows, awful machines at a slaughterhouse) were depicted impersonally. However, the Muslim meat worker in In Jackson Heights is a human being above all. He sings uplifting praise to his God before killing a bird. Wiseman represents the life of Jackson Heights as a stream that will never run out. People have travelled to the US in search of a better life, often encountering experiences even more extreme than the killing of animals.

There is an important hero in this film, the neighborhood of Jackson Heights itself. Wiseman likes taking wide shots of this neighborhood: streets, people walking and meeting, small shops and cafés, Catholic churches and Hindu temples. This place is like a human being who is always changing, taking different forms at different times of day.

Wiseman has reached the highest level of mastery. His latest films are very close to those of the legendary creators of poetic cinema – Walter Ruttmann, Joris Ivens, René Clair. His works are a kind of visual poetry which integrate Man and the City, Jackson Heights and the Universe. Jackson Heights is a symbol of mankind which is e pluribus unum.

Edited by Lesley Chow