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Documentarian Frederick Wiseman on How the Idaho Legislature Can Help You Understand Barack Obama

Photo: Getty Images

It takes an extraordinary director to make great cinema out of the inner workings of the state legislature in Boise, Idaho. Frederick Wiseman, the legendary documentarian behind of such films as Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), and Hospital (1970), has returned with a new documentary that does just that. Opening at Anthology Film Archives this Friday, the hypnotic, beautiful State Legislature clocks in at nearly four captivating hours. It’s another seminal entry in Wiseman’s lifelong project of depicting the inner lives of American institutions, and it’s also a remarkable affirmation of the 78-year-old filmmaker’s continuing relevance and creativity. We chatted with him about his method, his new movie, and what he thinks about reality TV (answer: not much).

Why the Idaho state legislature?
My films are basically about American life as expressed through its institutions. I’ve always wanted to do a film about a state legislature but hadn’t gotten around to doing it. Then I met somebody who introduced me to the people at the Idaho legislature, and they said okay — so much of this is serendipity, really.

There’s also an added bit of serendipity because of the presidential campaign: Barack Obama’s opponents tend to dismiss his experiences as a state senator…
I don’t know enough about what Obama actually did in the Illinois legislature. I do know that some people are more active participants than others, but anybody who gets anything done will learn a lot about how the democratic process works. That’s basically what the film is about, actually. Theoretically anyone that takes an active role in a state legislature will be very experienced in the daily give-and-take of politics, the coalition building, bargaining, negotiation — all the things that make up the political process.

So do you just sit in the corner with a camera, or do you actively try and find the story as you’re shooting?
Both. You don’t really know you have a story until after a sequence is over. That’s part of the fun of it. I’m always surprised. It’s a bit like Las Vegas. You’re shooting craps and going on your instinct. And you’re making choices. I was there eleven and a half weeks, and I got 160 hours of film. That’s a lot of film, but I was there about 60 hours a week; that’s already 660 hours of footage I could have shot. So obviously, I made some choices. It’s only about seven or eight months into the editing that a film starts to emerge.

Your films are renowned for their nonjudgmental approach. Is it hard to keep your own opinions out of the picture when making these films?
My opinion is always expressed indirectly through structure. I hate didactic movies, or didactic novels, or didactic plays and poems. Which isn’t to say my films don’t have a point of view, because they do. The movie represents my point of view towards the subject matter. Now, if I could express my point of view in 25 words or less, I shouldn’t be making the movie.

People say that we’re living in a time of resurgence for documentaries, but it seems to us that most of the documentaries coming out are designed to prove some political point.
Yes, they’re ideological movies. They have a political point of attack. They’re very different from what I’m doing. What’s taking place in documentaries doesn’t interest me at all. I’ve found that things are more complicated than even I assume they are when I start. And I hate the idea of simplifying material for political purpose.

Is it easier for you to make films now that documentaries are financially viable?
It’s harder now to raise the money than it was 25 years ago; there are more people making movies, and they’re more expensive. I make a living by trying to make one movie a year, by owning the rights to all my movies, and by giving the occasional talk at colleges. Sometimes I make more money talking about movies than I do making them!

Your depiction of different social institutions seems to have found its unlikely reflection in some reality TV. What’s your take on that?
To be honest with you, I never watch TV. The only thing I ever watch is sports, so I can’t really comment on it. But I guess the fact that I don’t watch TV is kind of a comment in itself. –Bilge Ebiri