The Idaho Legislature is the subject of Frederick Wiseman’s next cinema verite documentary. Starting with his controversial film Titicut Follies in 1967, Wiseman has filmed the day-to-day workings of American places and institutions — public housing developments, high schools and an old Maine seaport town, among other subjects. His last PBS broadcast, Domestic Violence, was filmed in a shelter for abused women and children, called the Spring, in Tampa, Fla. Wiseman, who doesn’t discuss his film projects until they’re near completion, declined Current’s request for an interview. But he told Idaho statehouse reporter Betsy Russell that he chose the Idaho Legislature because he wanted to film an American institution in the West.
If Frederick Wiseman’s High School works like a time machine, transporting viewers back to their own coming of age experiences in this quintessential American institution, the journey will be bittersweet for alumni of Philadelphia’s Northeast High School, where the landmark documentary was shot. Most alums have never seen the documentary, but they remember the local controversy over how it depicted their alma mater. Threatened with what he describes now as “vague talk” of a lawsuit, Wiseman in 1968 agreed not to screen High School within miles of the city. More than three decades later, the documentary has achieved classic status among independent films. PBS will present it as such Aug. 28  as a P.O.V. Classic, a new strand developed by Executive Producer Cara Mertes.
As I write these words, Frederick Wiseman’s 30th film, Public Housing, is about to be broadcast, Dec. 1 , through PBS, the national network that has presented all of his documentaries. It concerns the Ida B. Wells housing development on Chicago’s South Side. The sites of his past documentaries have varied from high schools to hospitals, from public parks to private playgrounds. He has shown us the inside of military and police units, welfare and model agencies, prisons, a primate research lab, a meat packing plant and a zoo.