Domestic Violence (Frederick Wiseman, USA, 2001)
Frederick Wiseman's Hospital (1970) opens with a disclaimer that applies
to all of his work: "some of the scenes ... may make you uncomfortable,
delete them would distort the reality of this unusual documentary." His films' titles, such as Law and Order (1969), Basic Training (1971),
Juvenile Court (1973), Meat (1976), Public Housing (1977), and Domestic Violence (2001), are as blunt and raw as a blast of cigar smoke and
indicate the directness of his style. Wiseman's career began during the height of cinema vérité, and his approach remains faithful to that era's
ethos. While the vast majority of documentarians now work on video, Wiseman still uses 16mm and is his own editor. He maintains tight control over his
films, many of which are produced for TV by PBS, and all are only available for sale or rent through his company, Zipporah Films. In 32 films over 35
years, Wiseman has examined nearly the entire range of American institutions. The more volatile his subject the better his work.
Where Errol Morris and Agnès Varda, for example, are present
in their films, Wiseman avoids voiceover narration and remains virtually
Even in relatively unadorned documentaries like Southern Comfort (2001) and Startup.com (2001), the subjects are far more aware of the camera's
presence in comparison to those who appear in Wiseman's films. He takes his time and lets his subjects speak in long takes, focusing on them in
close-up or panning back and forth between them as they converse. Still, his work is more complex than its meat-and-potatoes veneer would suggest.
If not for careful editing and structuring strategies, these difficult, involved films, including Domestic Violence, might be too draining. Using shots of the hallways and exterior of the Spring, a Florida-based shelter and counseling center for victims of abuse where Domestic Violence takes place, he pulls back to allow some breathing room from moments of intense emotion, and to remind us that this, too, is an institution like any other. Regarding his apparently spare approach to the depiction of institutional life's absurdities, Errol Morris has compared Wiseman to Samuel Beckett. Also, Welfare's (1975) subjects navigate the
impenetrable bureaucracy of social assistance in a manner that brings Kafka's The Castle to mind.
Hospital, a thorough examination of a New York emergency room, is a
good example of the relatively brief, punchy films of Wiseman's earliest
The film is most notable for its depiction of patients shown confronting their own mortality. Doctors and nurses alternate between compassion
(occasionally serving as de facto social workers) and cold professionalism. Their patients are society's most vulnerable people - alcoholics, drug
addicts, the poor, and the elderly. There's no narrative at work, but the film has plenty of drama: a doctor begs that a schizophrenic transvestite
be allowed to collect welfare, a young man on a bad mescaline trip and nasty fit of projectile vomiting is convinced that he's about to die (intentionally or not, it is one of the most harrowing anti-drug scenes ever filmed), and a man argues that he doesn't want to be admitted to the hospital because he'd rather take care of his
children, while the nurse points out that they'd suffer more if he died. Occasionally, Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall method becomes objectionably invasive, particularly when he films a man's emotional breakdown at the prospect that he might have cancer. Wiseman ends Law and Order (1969), his
look at the Kansas City police force, with a Nixon speech, and eventually brings a similarly broad perspective to Hospital, closing with a long shot
of the hospital building that grows more distant as the camera pulls back. This shot suggests a difficult shift has ended, and Wiseman has shown us
the vast complexities of a huge institution normally taken for granted.
Welfare sometimes feels like a sequel to Hospital : both corrosively
capture the intensity of a place where the pressure of necessity forces
people to the breaking point. Wiseman's Welfare shows everyone - clients, social workers, general staff - to be working at cross purposes,
with the simplest facts becoming complicated beyond measure. An unmarried couple lies about the circumstances of their relationship, a recently
mugged white bigot argues about the coming race war with a bemused African-American cop who would clearly rather be elsewhere, and anxiety can
be felt between the office workers themselves. While the welfare agency does function, Wiseman reveals it to be perpetually on the verge of
When watching Wiseman's films, the Heisenberg principle inevitably crops
up: To what extent does his camera alter the situation
he's observing? How could his subjects possibly show such little self-consciousness? These issues are most troubling when he depicts people
at their most desperate. While Wiseman's efforts to expose the contradictions and complexities of institutional life are noble, one
wonders what state his ill or frazzled subjects were in when they consented to appear in his films. His first film, Titicut Follies (1967), faced legal
problems due to its unflattering depiction of a mental hospital in the state of Massachusetts. As much of Domestic Violence depicts public group therapy sessions, these issues are less of a concern -- though one still has to wonder if the Tampa police force always handles domestic violence cases with the sensitivity displayed in the film.
Domestic Violence is another epic look at a difficult subject. Structured
to give the impression of a day in the life of the Spring, it was actually
shot over a two-month period. It begins and ends with Wiseman following the police as they respond to reports of violent or loud disputes between
couples. The strongest scene comes at the end, as two male and female officers investigate a verbal brawl between a drunken man and a woman
suffering from a bladder infection. The man has acted violently towards her before; though he wants her out of their house, she has nowhere to go.
The police offer helpful advice, trying to make the best of a difficult situation, but they can't offer any real solutions. What comes next is
anyone's guess, but the cycle of violence the film has spent the past three hours chronicling promises to roll around again.
The remainder of Domestic Violence is devoted to the work done at the
Spring, focusing on therapy sessions in which counselors discuss
self-esteem issues with the abused women. If Wiseman intended to make a didactic film, he succeeded; it offers a valuable look at the perspectives
of both the victims of violence and their therapists. However, the Spring's benevolence runs the risk of sapping the film of drama. To counteract this
danger, Wiseman concentrates on the most painful aspects of life there - especially horrific stories of abuse related in therapy - rather than
offering an upbeat view of increasing strength and resilience. However, his emphasis on these sessions becomes gratingly repetitive: including only one
of them would have made the point just as effectively. At 197 minutes, Domestic Violence is far from Wiseman's longest film, but it could have
benefited from some trimming.
Domestic Violence is hardly cheerful, especially since it ends on such an ambiguous, threatening note. By tracing its subjects' first, extremely tentative steps towards confronting a lifetime of damage, it's at least as harrowing as Hospital and Welfare. A follow-up, Domestic Violence II, will trace abuse cases through the court system and will be shown on PBS inconjunction with Domestic Violence later this year. Nevertheless, the film is implicitly hopeful.
Wiseman's seeming objectivity conceals an attitude towards his subjects
that's often both sympathetic and critical: critical towards institutions
but sympathetic to the people who work in them. The dilemma of being a
bureaucrat seems to be a frequent subtext in his films, particularly in
Welfare. The welfare agents it depicts are making the best of a difficult
situation, one in which their clients are often so desperate that they're
unable to negotiate for their own best interest. Nevertheless, it's inevitable
that in such a system, rules and regulations often become oppressive. One
bureaucrat says that in an agency which serves a few million people, a
few thousand are bound to fall through the cracks: true, but cold comfort
to them. Many of Wiseman's other films trace the way
institutions work while barely remaining functional: for once, Domestic Violence focuses on one that offers a path out of hell.