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A Visit to the Doc: The Frederick Wiseman Collection

Sheryn Morris, Librarian, Central Library,
Documentary films of Frederick Wiseman

The documentary films of Frederick Wiseman are compelling, thought-provoking, and chilling in their candor. Wiseman led the way in making us look at subject matter we did not necessarily want to look at, even think about. His documentaries have explored social, political and cultural aspects of American life and include some of the following: welfare, meat production, luxury shopping, high school education, animal experimentation, the military, dance, teenage incarceration. Viewing these films today, there is nothing dated about them, except clothing. Some of the problems are alarmingly fresh and relevant, as if nothing has changed. Despite the fact that most of his films do not necessarily present public and private institutions in a positive light, many of them continue to open their doors to Wiseman. When asked why, he said, “because I asked them.” He has filmed in Europe, but says, “American life is my subject.” At 88 years of age, he is still filming, “It’s not my work, it’s my passion—and it also passes the time better than anything else.”

His career as a documentary filmmaker began amid controversy and censorship. Titictut Follies was released in 1967, and was banned for public showing, but finally released to the general public in 1991. The subject was patients who were inmates at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Most of his films were broadcast originally on PBS, but now are available for free by way of your Los Angeles Public Library card and Kanopy, which the filmmaker applauds.

“Regardless of the current American political scene, the American library remains an ideal of inclusion, democracy, and freedom of expression. Having my collection available to stream through Kanopy grants access to a whole new generation. Libraries have an enormous reach making Kanopy the perfect home to stream my films.”

—Frederick Wiseman

The Kanopy Collection has forty-one of Wiseman's forty-three documentaries. We've highlighted some of our favorites below.

Highlights from the Collection

Crazy Horse: A modern documentary about Le Crazy Horse Saloon, a Parisian cabaret show, founded in 1951. The 2012 film documents the challenges of living up to the club’s standards, while still appealing to a modern audience.

La danse ballet de l’Opera: How does a 350-year-old institution maintain its existence, and what does it take to put together a major dance production: costumes, sets, auditions and endless rehearsals. Even though the company receives government funding, it needs to justify that money.

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is his most recent film and takes us behind the scenes in one of our most important libraries.

High School: This 1968 film was another controversial production because it featured Northeast High School in Philadelphia, and not in a favorable way.

High School II: Central Park East Secondary School is a highly successful alternative high school in New York’s Spanish Harlem where 85-95% of its graduates go to four-year colleges.

The Hospital: Take a look at the daily activities of a large city hospital, Metropolitan Hospital Center, with a focus on its ER and outpatient resources.

The Store: It documents shoppers and employees at a major luxury store, Neiman Marcus in Dallas Texas, during the holiday season.