Taking time

Profile - Patricia Holland celebrates a career documenting real life

The celebrated American documentarist Frederick Wiseman is a rare example of a filmmaker who is in total control of his own output. Originally trained as a lawyer, he is fiercely independent and totally pragmatic. "For my first two films, I had to sue the distributor for my share of the money," he says; since then, he has paid personal attention to every detail, from raising the funds to distribution. At this year's Sheffield International Documentary Festival, alongside British programme-makers whose mood seems ever closer to desperation, his was the calm presence of a man who, for more than 30 years, has pursued his own idiosyncratic project.

In contrast to everything that television commissioning editors demand, Wiseman's documentaries do not have strong stories; they do not centre on specific characters; they are not based on new and original ideas; they do not have an obvious beginning, middle or end - they simply start, often without even a title to give us a clue. They are documentaries that do just that - they document, gently and consistently, taking their time. For 33 years, Wiseman has taken his microphone and, together with a cameraman (he has worked with only five in that time) and a single assistant, has prowled around American society, turning out a new film every couple of years. His method is to shoot 75-120 hours of film within a specific institution (hospital, scientific centre, monastery, army training camp) or a given area (prosperous mountain resort, small town, inner-city housing project), and then to spend at least a year shaping the material into a loose mosaic that comes as near to capturing the spirit of his subject as you are likely to get. A finished film may be anything from one to six hours long.

We are currently at something of a watershed when it comes to the factual moving image - one film shown at the Sheffield festival plausibly claimed to be "The Last Documentary". For a variety of reasons, the future could hardly be more uncertain. For one thing, the boundaries between the media are rapidly dissolving. Interactivity is putting power into the hands of audiences who may now be participatory users rather than passive viewers. Porn addicts and Big Brother aficionados are not the only ones who can construct their own programmes on their computer screens, flicking between streaming images from a variety of webcams. Televisual collaborations with computer technologies range from innovative dramas such as Attachments to new documentary formats such as Smart Hearts. News and current affairs are complemented by their websites. Multiple digital channels are with us, and producers are urged to search for ideas that would make the most of interactivity and convergence.

To cap it all, the manipulability of the digital image is shaking our conviction that filmed images are reliably linked to reality. Home movie images in Blair Witch style can look more real than real; standard documentary forms can be exposed as fakes. Audiences and producers have become so sophisticated and so sceptical that, to many, the project of documentary is possible only when it becomes an ironic reflection on itself.

Wiseman contradicts all this in his very persona. While British television increasingly prefers the startling, the amusing and the entertaining, his films have become progressively less shocking, less combative, more tolerant and ever closer to the texture of the lives of their subjects. These films are constructions, not clever deconstructions, and are concerned with ordinary life as it happens, rather than with an entertaining sparkle. They roll along at their own pace, asserting that everyone's life is interesting and allowing more powerful meanings to emerge in their rhythms and structure, focusing on content as opposed to technological fireworks.

And yet, Wiseman's work was made possible by an earlier wave of technical innovation, and his first films made their reputations through their shock value. He came to documentary in the mid-1960s on the crest of the wave of "direct cinema", when lightweight camera equipment and the ability to record synchronous sound brought an exciting new set of images to the screen. Here were unstable and blurry pictures, as the camera peered into spaces previously hidden, often losing focus as it urgently sought out first one subject then the next, creating a nervous energy unprecedented in documentary film-making.

This was the style Wiseman used in his first film, Titicut Follies (1967), an account of life in a hospital for the criminally insane. The film was raw and often distressing - it is impossible to forget the image of a member of staff casually force-feeding a naked inmate through the nose while smoking a cigarette - and it was banned for 24 years. Titicut Follies was followed, in 1968, by High School (the head teacher described the result as a "middle-class, debunking film") and, in 1969, by Law and Order, in which tough cops show little mercy to prostitutes and drug dealers. But despite the sense of outrage created by these early films, Wiseman insists that he has always wanted to film institutions where people are doing their best. "I feel an obligation to present what went on fairly, and to provide information," he says. Even Bridgewater, where Titicut Follies was filmed, was thought at the time to be a good example of its kind. What comes across damningly in the films is the deadening effect of a closed institutional culture.

But Wiseman has no missionary zeal. "I used to believe that films could change things, but I now think that view was not only naive but pretentious. It's rare that one document could be that powerful," he says.

His films have grown longer with time, and the themes of tolerance and the ability to cope have become stronger. High School 2 (1994) shows a successful inner-city school with a majority of black pupils, filmed in the emotional context of the Rodney King trial and the Los Angeles riots. In Public Housing (1997), the residents of a decrepit Chicago estate organise themselves and campaign for improvements. These are films in which the communities are the heroes, and they are peppered with idiosyncrasies and hilarious moments - for example, in Primate, when the exhausted ape in the animal research centre gives up and refuses to move, while the investigator swings from the bars to encourage him. But, now, a characteristic Wiseman sequence shows ordinary people simply getting on with their lives. Events are unspectacular and run at length: a golden wedding party, an art class, a yoga session, a prayer gathering, a committee meeting.

A slot that can broadcast lengthy documentaries, such as BBC2's Storyville and Channel 4's True Stories, is now a rarity in a hotly contested schedule. One consequence of the proliferation of channels seems to be that slow-moving programmes or any hint of boredom can never be tolerated, for fear of being zapped by the remote control. But another scenario is possible. The growing number of channels could provide space for slow and thoughtful work, where we could watch a Wiseman film unfold at its own stately pace. Or would it be heresy to suggest that, with our new interactive audience skills, we could dip in and sample sequences and sections, rather than watching the whole film every time? Perhaps the very length of Wiseman's documentaries demonstrates that he, too, makes films that are part of the new era.