Over the past 24 years, filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, with works ranging from his 1968 “High School” to last year’s “Central Park,” has been an inexhaustible documenter of American institutions. But there’s a unique footnote to Wiseman’s career: His first film, “Titicut Follies,” was the only movie in American history to be banned for reasons other than obscenity.
But no more. In the wake of a July 29 decision by Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge Andrew Gill Meyer to lift all restrictions on public screenings of the film, “Titicut Follies” opened Friday for a week’s engagement as part of the AFI/USA Independent Showcase at Laemmle’s Grande. It marks the 1967 documentary’s L.A. premiere.
Despite--or because of--"Follies’ ” unavailability, it attained a mystique over the years as the definitive work of ‘60s cinema verite --a term Wiseman himself dislikes.
Securing permission from Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Elliot Richardson (later to become Health, Education and Welfare secretary and attorney general in the Nixon Administration) and Atty. Gen. Edward Brooke, the law professor-turned-filmmaker took his camera inside Massachusetts’ Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane. What he recorded exposed an institution shot through with inhumanity, and, by implication, a state government that didn’t care.
“Titicut Follies” pitted two fundamental rights against each other: freedom of expression versus the right to privacy.
Richardson, who won the race for state attorney general just as “Titicut Follies” was receiving raves at the 1967 New York Film Festival, led the fight to ban the film “in the best interests of the inmates at Bridgewater,” claiming that the film was an invasion of the inmates’ privacy.
Reached at his Washington law office this week, Richardson expressed surprise at Meyer’s decision to lift the ban, adding that “without having read his opinion, I can’t be sure that I’d agree with his reasoning, but I can’t disagree with the result.”
“The lapse of 24 years,” he continued, “has reduced the concern over the privacy issue, and tilted it in favor of other considerations (like freedom of expression).” Richardson still believes, however, that Wiseman violated an agreement with state officials that he would obtain permission from any inmates who were filmed.
Richardson isn’t the only one who stands by his story. Wiseman denied any violations, claiming that he obtained written or taped verbal permission from Bridgewater inmates, “always in the presence of a guard.” (Since “Follies,” the filmmaker has eschewed written releases in favor of taped verbal ones.)
In Wiseman’s view, there shouldn’t have been any restrictions on “Follies” in the first place. (Until the recent decision, it could only be viewed by mental health professionals, students and others with an interest in the subject.) “I’ve always felt,” he noted, “that the invasion of privacy issue was a smoke screen to protect politicians who felt that their jobs were threatened” by the film’s revelations of scandalous conditions at Bridgewater.
Wiseman’s camera shows inmates as emaciated as Nazi concentration camp survivors, guards mercilessly taunting an elderly ward and--in an image that Wiseman says may be the most famous he has ever filmed--an official forcibly feeding broth to a patient by tube while his cigarette’s ash dangles perilously over the funnel of soup.
“Rather than launching an investigation into conditions in our mental institutions,” Wiseman said, “the state went after my film. I suppose it was a case of wanting to kill the messenger.” He added that, ironically, Bridgewater officials annually screen “Follies” to employees, “as a training film in what not to do.”
Though “Follies” has been credited with helping improve conditions at mental hospitals across the country, it didn’t prevent a 1987 tragedy at Bridgewater, where five inmates committed suicide. A subsequent investigation revealed that, with better care, the suicides may have been prevented.
“I had never resigned myself to the fate that my film would never be seen by a wide public,” said Wiseman, whose latest documentary, “Aspen,” airs Dec. 30 on PBS. “I just waited for the right time to fight the ban, and the 1987 tragedy was the time.”
Reviewing the original case, Meyer ruled in September, 1989, that “Follies” could be released, but only if faces on film could be blurred.
Wiseman appealed, arguing that because “Follies” wasn’t shot on video, which is capable of electronically blurring faces to protect identities, but on film, which can’t, Meyer’s ruling would render the film unviewable.
This led to the July decision, in which Meyer acknowledged Wiseman’s claims, as well as the fact that no Bridgewater inmate or inmate’s relatives have pressed a claim against public showings of “Follies” since 1967.
“Titicut Follies” opened the Boston Film Festival on Sept. 12. After the L.A. engagement, it is scheduled for a New York run next March.
Thinking back on the stormy legal battle, Richardson mused that “the case over ‘Titicut Follies’ represented a unique confrontation between two of our most fundamental Constitutional rights.” The case is closed for the film, but as Richardson noted, “I’m not sure that we’ll ever resolve the issue.”