Titicut Follies ★★★★½

I've been a fan of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking since I saw Frederick Wiseman's High School which instantly became my favourite documentary of all time after my first watch earlier last year. Something about the aesthetic really spoke to me, ironic considering that these films rely on the absence of spoken-word. The opposite was something that always detracted a lot from docs when I watched them. Too much talking from people who have read up on a situation rather than lived it, not enough of the real thing. I always hankered to know what it was about rather than how it was viewed by researchers and distant relatives. With Wiseman's films, we are immediately dropped into wherever he chose to deliver his subtle talents. From high school to a mental facility, Wiseman captures everything in the position he holds throughout his brief docs. It's unfiltered and undoctored apart from some cutting to different events, allowing the viewer to soak in every detail like they were sitting in the room with whoever had the chance to speak. It was amazing to me how much Wiseman pulled off from seemingly nothing.

What was more amazing to me though, was how his films catered to the passing of time. If High School was shot in 2019, it would automatically seem amateurish and pointless. It would have had the same intentions as it would've in '68 but not to the same extent at the time. But that's what Wiseman does. He operates the camera with precision and lets the moment play out. No actors, no interfering... raw filmmaking. Looking back, you can see how these films would have been received at the time they were made. You can picture the eyes rolling while they watched it, "well it's just pointless, isn't it?". They serve to be time capsules, showcasing the ins and outs of wherever the viewer chooses to look. It's the neutrality of it all that makes everything so hard-hitting and heavy regardless of the extent it goes. High School made me ponder, Tititcut Follies wrecked me.

Titicut Follies was filmed at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Mass during 1966. It premiered at the New York Film Festival during 1967 and seemingly disappeared. We are spliced between several key events that display the utter disparity and cruelty of these institutions like we, the viewer, are the editor, sifting the footage for material. Wiseman's style works particularly well with this scenery due to its unflinching realism. It's gritty and absent of life. These people that we witness are at the end of their days, maybe some have already lost what they could have had. This is feel-bad cinema at its worst and at its finest. Wiseman never manipulates the audience or the people within his films, which makes the experience even more of a heavy weight on your chest. This is real and it's happening right in front of you. You are left with questions... "Is this still how it is?", "Has it always been like this?" but what's far more troubling, is that it is. High School was a fantastic film in the fact that its themes are still very much resonant. Wiseman seemingly knows what time will hold for these institutions making it all the more important that he lets us experience it the way he is. This film is about the mistreatment of people in mental institutions, yes, but it never frames itself as strictly that. Not to say his films could be interpreted as anything, they are still clearly conformed to the location set by the filmmaker, but you take out of it what you are looking to take out of it. These films could easily be passed off as lazy or manipulative but I can hardly find where his filmography checks off those boxes. It requires a keen eye.

The legislators of the institution this film revolves tried to suppress the film for two years because they quote on quote "invaded the privacy of the inmates". Maybe they had a point, but it's clear what their intent was. They shrouded this film from the public eye with everything they could muster, and here I am today watching it, so I'd say they did a pretty bad job of it. But honestly, the idea that they would go this far to have these people lose more of their voice that had already been beaten into seclusion was morally crushing. The horrific acts upon these people's lives had been tossed aside and buried deep underground in order to appease to the people unaware of the treatment, much like I was (to this extent). It is depravity through an unfiltered lens. Varying degrees of illness are treated with the same inhumanity and it is gut-wrenching and outright disturbing to watch. It's one of the defining examples of how powerful films can really be.

Titicut Follies is simply one of the most remarkable documentaries of all time seemingly born out of nothing. It won't be a shocking revelation for anyone who isn't already interested or a fan of Cinéma vérité but it is nonetheless an important film and I implore you to watch it or Wiseman's other works. Just don't watch them on a good day.