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Frederick Wiseman, "I Never Wanted to Make Films About Violence"

Translated Thursday 31 March 2011, by Henry Crapo

At eighty-one years of age, Frederick Wiseman never ceases to astound. His tour of institutions continues, in the gymnasium of "Boxing Gym".

A Victory With Fists

With Boxing Gym, Federick Wiseman, the world’s best documentary film maker in regular activity, has just made his annual film concentrating on an institution. This time, he brought his camera to a gymnasium for boxers in Austin, Texas.

Not one of those halls from which the champions emerge, like that reconstituted for Million Dollar Baby, but a place for conviviality, where one trains simply to keep in shape, or for the love of the sport. There are children, adolescents, young adults of both sexes, and one practices limbering up, muscle-building, punching ball, and rope jumping. No competitions or climbing to glory. Just the ordinary practice of ordinary people.

Huma: With Boxing Gym, you are again filming an institution, this time a gymnasium, something you have continued to do, at a rhythm of one film per year, ever since your first documentary in 1967. What do you find so fascinating about all this?

Frederick Wiseman: It’s a type of work that has always fascinated me, and which makes both physical and mental demands on me. It keeps me on my feet twelve hours a day. And requires me to be alert all that time. All the subjects are different, and I have to find new ways to present them each time. It’s fascinating that the cinema requires me to keep in shape. Documentaries have nothing to do with the techniques of fictional cinema, particularly when it comes to assembly. You have to be attentive to the slightest gesture, to the least sound. Students, who have read nothing since their latest comic strip, imagine that they have to know everything about technique, forgetting that they must be servant to an idea.

Huma: When you think chronologically about your forty films, do you get the impression that you have evolved?

Frederick Wiseman: I hope I’ve learned something. I see the errors I made in the beginning, but go on to make new errors. In Crazy Horse Saloon, a film I’m just now piecing together, when I see it again after thirty days, on each viewing I find some detail to modify.

Huma: Your subjects are all your personal choices, or do you sometimes accept requests?

Frederick Wiseman: All the subjects come from me. I’ve never accepted a single contract, even if I retain the right to do so. For this, I stick to my own producer, with the exception of films I’ve made in France, where I add a French co-producer, in order to benefit from subsidies.

Huma: Why, this time, did you settle on a gymnasium?

Frederick Wiseman: I am an amateur boxer. In the 1970’s I would go to movies on the big screen, and I liked the films about boxing, ranging from
Gentleman Jim, by Raoul Walsh, to Raging Bull, by Martin Scorsese, and including The Champion, drawn from a play by Clifford Odets. Not to mention Rocky 42 (laughter). I never wanted to make films about violence, but, looking back, I discovered that my films treated violence, be it directly physical, military, conjugal, medical, and so forth.

It’s true of Titicut Follies, Law and Order, Juvenile Court, Manœuvre or Missile, on violence of the state.
Boxing is ritualized violence, which lies in beating the other person by violence, even if it is a sport. This brings me back to what I filmed about the dance, since it has a similarity with boxing: the constant training, the short career, the control of the body, and the fact of doing violence to oneself. Stepping back a bit, I realized that it was never premeditated. The conclusion that I can draw from all my films is that man is a violent animal.

Huma: Why, exactly, the gymnasium in the film?

Frederick Wiseman: I chose it by chance. I was in Austin, Texas. I talked to a friend about my desire to make a film about boxing, and asked him if he knew of a suitable location. When I saw the gymnasium with all its posters, I realized it was a six million dollar location. The instructor was very kind, and had a good relation with people.

Huma: What did you learn?

Frederick Wiseman: The social life. In the gymnasium there are all sorts of social classes, almost all the races, and the two sexes. The work depends on collaboration. People train each other and help each other, even if the sport is violent. It’s a veritable melting pot. Everybody from millionaires to homeless. A judge told me there were fifteen people there he had personally sent to prison.

Huma: So it’s a message of hope?

Frederick Wiseman: As one of the great American philosophers said, if you have a message, then send a telegram! There are also traces of the outside world. You see how the people talk about the killings at Virginia Tech, you hear the soldiers talking, and hear how the director of the gymnasium addresses himself to those who had been robbed. In the outside world, there is less hope. Woody Allen tells us that Emily Dickinson wrote "hope is a thing with feathers" [1], and completes the idea: "The thing with feathers is my nephew, and I take him to consult a specialist in Zurich."

Huma: Your next projects?

Frederick Wiseman: I finish my film on Crazy Horse Saloon, which I send to Cannes, then I link this to a film on a very good and large American university.

[1Hope is the thing with feathers. That perches in the soul, ...

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