Frederick Wiseman's HOSPITAL at THE DOCYARD: Reality in the Raw

After many years of study, negotiation, and struggle, and over a year and a half of intense national debate landmark healthcare legislation was signed into law this past March. While the significant outcomes of this new plan are yet to be seen, it can’t be argued that this is the most sweeping healthcare legislation our country has seen since the creation of the Medicare program. With premiums rising every year, and an increasing number of Americans, particularly children, going uninsured, there was an urgent sense that something needed to be done.

This great healthcare debate was on our minds as Ben Fowlie (Creative Director for Camden International Film Festival), Sean Flynn (Producer at Principle Pictures), and I discussed our inaugural programming season for our collaborative project THE DOCYARD . THE DOCYARD is a new bi-weekly documentary film and discussion series hosted at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA, with the goal of growing a vibrant, creative community for Boston’s filmmakers, film students and film lovers. Over the course of the summer into early September, the series will bring some of the newest work in the documentary field to Boston, while also reexamining past work that deserves a fresh eye.

In this spirit of looking back to look forward, we decided to revisit one of Frederick Wiseman’s earliest and most masterful films – HOSPITAL. For those unfamiliar with his work, Wiseman is widely considered to be one of the documentary genre’s most significant artists. From his base in Cambridge, MA, he has used his camera to examine institutions in films like HIGH SCHOOL, WELFARE, JUVENILE COURT, ZOO, and most recently LA DANSE and BOXING GYM. In a career that spans over forty years with almost forty films in the can, he is also one of the genre’s most prolific directors.

His most famous film is probably his first, 1967’s TITICUT FOLLIES. This film brought audiences behind the walls of the Massachusetts Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater. It was the first of his films I ever saw and I remember the shock I felt, not only at the brutality being played out before my eyes, but at the rawness of the document itself. In Wiseman’s films, there are no narrators to help you understand the context or distancing you from the images; there are no interviews to explain the thinking of any particular character. Instead, through the camera’s lens, you are there as witness to the human drama unfolding before you. Wiseman is considered a master of direct cinema, an approach to documentary that aims to present “objective reality” or its closest proximity. These films, and Wiseman’s work in particular, are not polemics, but raw observations of what happens when people and institutions come together, clash, or just share space.

Whereas TITICUT FOLLIES is heralded for revealing the abuses taking place at the Bridgewater facility; HOSPITAL, though similar in approach, is a very different film in tone. Winner of 2 EMMY Awards for Best News Documentary, HOSPITAL takes you on what feels like a “day in the life” of New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, focusing primarily on the emergency ward and out-patient clinics. Over the course of the film we meet patients, doctors, nurses and police dealing with sickness, overdose, violence, abuse, and mental illness. The patients we see are largely elderly or poor. Uniquely, there is no privileged point of view in the film. There is not one story here, or one character. The place itself is the main character, alive with stories that could fill a hundred films.

Three scenes stand out for me. One involves a doctor on the phone with another hospital, registering a complaint about a mishandled patient transfer that jeopardized the patient’s life. Another is of a young gay man, rejected by his family, looking for assistance from a resident psychiatrist who proves to have some fight in him. And the final scene that stays with me is of a nurse looking to place an abused child into care and looking for support from her colleagues; doctors, nurses, and cops; to find the best course of action and meeting with varying degrees of assistance and resistance. What unites these scenes thematically, in my eyes, are the compassion and professionalism of the staff, the vulnerability and dignity of the patients, and, at times, the bureaucracy that stands between them. There is a distinct lack of white hats and villains, replaced by a thoughtful look at human struggle. Visually, Wiseman gives us direct access to what’s unfolding before the camera, let’s us touch the intimacy of the scene, but does not let us linger long enough to intrude. There is a deep sense of respect in this work.

What is particularly of note, and in many ways what makes the film successful, is how oblivious to the camera the subjects seem to be. Of course, this is key to Wiseman’s genius. Despite all the decision-making, framing, and editing that has contributed to the construction of the scene, you feel as if you are experiencing each moment in the film in its fullness, its raw reality.

It has been debated for years among documentary filmmakers, scholars and enthusiasts, if it is possible to have an “invisible” camera or if the mere fact of the camera being in the room changes what will happen in that space. As you debate this in your own mind, remember there is a large camera in the room and possibly three people accompanying the camera – in this case, Mr. Wiseman, his cinematographer, and probably a sound person as well. This is not an insignificant presence. I am one who definitely believes that the mere presence of the camera changes the dynamics of what happens before it. However, what Wiseman is able to achieve in his work is the creation of a document that, while covered in his fingerprints, makes you feel like you are there with him observing the movements, gestures, tools and rhythms of a hospital.

Would it be possible to create a film like this today, given the media hyper-awareness of the current era? Thinking in particular about the new ABC series BOSTON MED, how will it compare to a documentary like HOSPITAL? What will the relationship to the camera be? What role will the producers play in what takes place in front of the camera?

As HOSPITAL closes, we are in Metropolitan’s chapel. The room is filled with patients, staff and families singing a hymn in Spanish. There’s a cut to the hospital exterior and we slowly pull away from the building, looking at it across a nearby highway. It’s such a familiar site in my mind, as I pass buildings I essentially ignore every day. After watching HOSPITAL, I am now reminded that every building I see is a possible vessel for a thousand stories.

I invite you to come to the screening of HOSPITAL on July 19th at the Brattle Theatre and join the discussion. We particularly invite (and are expecting) members of the medical community to lend us their perspectives on the film’s realism. How does this hospital from 1969 compare to what we experience today? Leading our discussion will be film scholar Scott MacDonald, currently writing on Wiseman’s work and, depending on some stars aligning, we may even get a visit from a special guest with the initials F.W. All details you need can be found here at: Join us.

Author: Advocate Staff

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