Titicut Follies (1967)
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
A few months ago I assembled a list of my personal top 25 documentaries of all time. The response was overwhelming, and although there were many readers that were satisfied by my choices, a great number pointed out a glaring omission, Frederick Wiseman’s ‘Titicut Follies’. At the time, I had yet to see the film. In fact, I hadn’t seen ANY Wiseman films, mainly due to a lack of access. Thankfully, Wiseman’s decision to release his films on DVD has given me the chance to check out this non-fiction classic. You were all right, it should’ve been on the list. HIGH on the list.
The opening of the film is appropriately surreal, setting the tone for the next hour and a half. A group of inmates dressed in white shirts and bow ties perform a song and dance number at the Massachusetts prison for the criminally insane. The talent show, MC’d by one of the head guards, is called ‘Titicut Follies’. It’s almost something you could imagine seeing in a Harmony Korine film. In fact, this entire movie is full of photography so surreal and mind blowing; it’s crazy to think it’s actually real. Wiseman’s direct cinema approach ends up naturally producing gorgeously disturbing images that are pure works of art.
Wiseman pulls no punches in his portrayal of the inhuman relationship between guards and inmates at this particular prison. In one scene, as some guards shave an older patients face, they continually ask him how clean his room is to the point of driving him mad. The result is a screaming, naked man shuffling down the hallway, bleeding from the mouth. Another inmate is force-fed through a tube in his nose, a scene in which Wiseman outright attacks the prisons methods by intercutting the preparation of the same man’s dead body. His statement on the inhumanity of the system is clear throughout the film, but is it really possible to come to any other conclusion?
The most frightening moment in the film comes from a prisoner who insists he isn’t crazy. He passionately pleads his case in front of a board of directors, claiming his time in the prison has actually hurt his progress, and the medication he’s forced to take is harming his mind. He sounds nervous and frantic, but seems completely mentally stable. The board ignores his concerns, responding by attacking his sense of logic, using condescending medical explanations for his current imprisonment. Their solution is to increase the amount of tranquilizers to tone down his behaviour. The man has been institutionalized for over a year. It’s like a horrible, real life nightmare.
Naturally, the film was initially met with some controversy and heavy resistance from the state of Massachusetts. Wiseman was accused of exploiting prisoners as claims were made that he didn’t get them to sign release forms. This resulted in Titicut Follies only being distributed and viewed for educational purposes. Luckily, the film eventually worked its way through its legal issues and has gone on to be considered one of the greatest works of direct cinema in film history.