Titicut Follies and the question of normality

Titicut Follies (1967), Frederick Wiseman. Zipporah Films. 

In 1967, Frederick Wiseman released his first feature film, Titicut Follies. Considered controversial and then banned for over 20 years in the United States, the film documents life at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane.

And the documentary itself is insane. Frederick Wiseman blends in completely with the mass of prisoners. He films them, from near and far, to get as much footage as possible. This is extremely important to him, since he believes that the editing tells the story of the film. In an interview, he reveals that he works according to the Guide Michelin method. Basically, at the end of the shooting, he has a hundred hours of scenes to edit. He classifies these scenes by giving each sequence 1, 2 or 3 stars. Then, he chooses the scenes and tries to find the best possible combinations. He has to pay attention to the rhythm of the film, the internal rhythm within a sequence and the external rhythm between the sequences. He goes through the film several times before it is finished. 

I have an obligation to the people who have given me permission not to simplify the material in the service of some personal ideology which they may not share. And I take that very seriously, because when someone has confidence enough in me to let me hang around—either the person that’s in charge of the place or the person who’s involved in a particular sequence—I feel an obligation to treat them fairly (however subjective that term may be). – Excerpt from an interview Frederick Wiseman gave to the Filmmaker Magazine in 2012.

Titicut Follies (1967), Frederick Wiseman. Zipporah Films. 

Thanks to the incredible work of editing, Frederick Wiseman is able to tell the truth. As he tries to understand the system, as well as the inmates themselves, we, as viewers, realize that the version of normality that is shown is completely absurd. In a one particularly striking sequence, we see a patient named Vladimir being taken to the medical staff. For 5 minutes, he tries to convince them that he is fine and that he can think clearly and logically. He believes the facility does not suit him. On the contrary, it is harming him. The doctors do not seem to be convinced by his words and eventually send him back to his cell. This extremely powerful moment is literally a cry for help. We can clearly see that this man is hurting and that he has emotional issues due to the treatment inflicted in the prison. However, the medical staff appears cold, distant, and emotionless. This scene raises a lot of questions about the concept of normality. It also makes us question about the morality of one’s society. What is good? What is bad? What is evil? How to differentiate these notions?

Alexia Lam

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