The year is 1967, and the place is Bridgewater State Hospital For The Criminally Insane in Massachusetts. The documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, with his camera man John Marshall, was allowed to spend 29 days in the institution to film and witness the daily routines with its inmates and workers, filmed in black and white that sets an eerie tone from the first frame. The documentary starts with a light-hearted welcome, with a song number performed by the hospital’s talent show called Titicut Follies, but I guess it didn’t take long before the filmmakers were eternally grateful that they could leave this concrete hell hole at any time and never set their feet there again.
The documentary is completely free of narration, and the experience is like witnessing an absurd and sometimes very disturbing fever dream where the images speak for themselves. But this is far from a dream. It’s raw, unfiltered, claustrophobic and not far from a fly-on-the-wall feeling. We see a group of inmates who are constantly being ordered to take off their clothes in one of the gathering rooms. They also have only a small bucket to piss in, and possibly also shit and vomit in, which they have to take with them through a long corridor to empty. Several are stripped of all their clothes and have to stay butt naked in completely empty cells, while the guards humiliate and bully them like they were animals. We get a scene with an older guy named Jim, who makes the strongest impression. He’s in a psychotic episode. He’s probably sick and tired of walking around naked, so who can blame him. It also looks like he has blood around his mouth, judging from that blurry picture quality. Regardless, the guards think it’s funny. And this is just a glimpse of a completely rotten and corrupt industry that has not been much improved over the years, where fair treatment is as difficult to get as winning the lottery. And I think that what we see here is just the tip of the iceberg, and God knows what was going on when the cameras weren’t rolling.
Wiseman ended up with 80,000 feet of film, which I guess is several hundreds of hours of footage, and he spent a whole year to edit it down to an 84-minute film. Showing this to the public would not be easy when the bureaucrats (or bureau’rats, if you will) in the government of Massachusetts tried to ban the film for being screened at the New York Film Festival, claiming that it would violate the “privacy and dignity” of the inmates. As if their privacy and dignity wasn’t violated long ago already. It wasn’t until 1991 that the film was officially released to the public, since most of the inmates had passed away and privacy concerns wasn’t longer an big issue. Little did they imagine that even fifty years later, the film still feels fresh and manages to provoke as it’s unfortunately still relevant. The DVD is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. And on YouTube.
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Country & year: USA, 1967