Documentarian Frederick Wiseman, at age 90, Still has Much to Say

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Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, 2017. Photo by Wolfgang Wesener.

By Michelle Trauring

When Frederick Wiseman makes a documentary, it demands the use of all his facilities — physical, emotional, intellectual and beyond.

More than 40 films later, it is that process that keeps him going. Even at age 90.

His newest effort, “City Hall” — a 275-minute odyssey that follows government life under the leadership of Boston Mayor Martin Walsh — will screen next month as part of “Wednesdays With Wiseman,” a virtual series hosted by the Sag Harbor Cinema that features three retrospective programs leading up to his most recent release.

Still frame from Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary “City Hall.”

Each screening will feature a talkback with fellow documentarians, starting off with a pas-de-deux with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, co-director of “Free Solo,” on his 1995 film, “Ballet,” which kicked off the series on Wednesday.

“I like the selection of films,” Wiseman wrote in an email from Paris. “There is a good variety of subject matter. Also, ‘Sinai Field Mission’ is rarely shown and it is one of my favorites.”

The 1978 film, which documents the routine activities of the diplomats and electronic technicians who operate the United States Sinai Field Mission — the early warning system established in 1976 to help carry out the disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel following the 1973 war — continues the series on Wednesday, October 28, in the virtual theater.

Still image from Frederick Wiseman’s 1995 documentary “Ballet.”

Adapting to current times tainted by the COVID-19 pandemic, an $8 ticket allows for weeklong access to each film, explained Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, artistic director of the Sag Harbor Cinema, which is now dependent on its virtual series.

“This program is very important for us because it’s something that illustrates part of what we will be doing when we are open,” she said. “Because we never actually opened our doors, we create all these virtual programs every week. We want to be sure our audience knows they are there, and they can access them and view the movies.”

Nearly two dozen independent cinemas across the country will screen this particular series, which was the brainchild of the team at Wiseman’s official distributor, Zipporah Films, home to all 45 of his documentaries made over the last five decades. Many are meditations on the subject of power within American institutions — from an asylum, public high school and meatpacking plant to a zoo, hospital and department store.

“I thought a film about a city hall would fit well with the institutional series I have been doing,” Wiseman said. “It is also thematically linked to many of my other films — welfare, public housing, juvenile court, law and order — since in most cities, public health, welfare, police and public housing are controlled by city governments.”

Through a series of his trademark vignettes, Wiseman explores the inner-workings of the government of his native Boston, helmed by Walsh, who works with a diverse, passionate group of public servants to keep the city running while grappling with pressing issues like racial justice, affordable housing, climate action and homelessness.

Still frame from Frederick Wiseman’s 1969 documentary “Hospital.”

“I think there is quite a bit of conversation these days about this government, that government, and this is a very ample look at the Boston City Hall,” D’Agnolo Vallan said. “It’s a magnificent way to tell us the stories of the people that work there, and also how much their work and this institution is part of our life and necessary for us to function as a society. It’s very moving. The way the film is articulated has shorter stories and longer stories. It has a very, very beautiful breadth of storytelling.”

Approached with intellect, depth and a piercing eye, “City Hall” is an urgent portrait of democracy at work, though Wiseman did not tackle the project with that vision in mind.

“He says often that he doesn’t know what the film is going to be about, or is going to be like, when he films it — and that his film is usually found while editing,” D’Agnolo Vallan said. “His process is very, very similar for each film. He goes into a place and stays there for several weeks, and he films. And then he goes back and he finds the film in the footage.”

Still image from Frederick Wiseman’s 1978 film “Sinai Field Mission.”

His consistent process reflects a sense of wonder and curiosity across all of his films, devoid of preconceived notions and overflowing with discovery. The story that emerges in “City Hall” is one that paints a sprawling picture of how government should work, Wiseman explained.

“Mayor Walsh is the anti-Trump,” he said of the current White House leadership. “Everything Mayor Walsh stands for, Trump is against. Mayor Walsh is a decent, intelligent man trying to do his best to offer excellent public services to the people of Boston. Trump is a psychopath only interested in what he sees in the mirror.”

Despite the seriousness of nearly every Wiseman film, there also exists an underlying humor — one that D’Agnolo Vallan knows firsthand from her decades-long friendship with the documentarian, having debuted a handful of his films at the Venice Film Festival as its U.S. programmer and selection committee member, including “City Hall.”

“I just love his films,” she said. “I sometimes like to think of his films as one big movie about the human experience, illustrated through these institutions that he uses to frame the context of a film.

“It seems like such a simple idea, but he has carried it through 40-plus movies and it has given us so much to see about the way we live, the way we are, our society,” she continued. “I like to think about his work as grand, beautiful and unique. I do think he is one of the greatest filmmakers working today.”

The Sag Harbor Cinema’s “Wednesdays With Wiseman,” a virtual weekly series featuring classic documentaries by Frederick Wiseman, began this week with his 1995 film“Ballet,” and will continue on Wednesday, October 28, with “Sinai Field Mission,” followed by a talkback between the director and fellow filmmaker Errol Morris. Up next on November 3, is “Hospital,” featuring a conversation with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Tickets are $8 per film.

The series concludes with “City Hall” on November 6. Tickets are $12. For more information, visit sagharborcinema.org.

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