In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Frederick Wiseman

  • Introduction
  • Books
  • Reference Works
  • Career Profiles
  • Direct Cinema and Cinema Verité
  • Scholarly Essays
  • Interviews
  • Articles by Wiseman

Cinema and Media Studies Frederick Wiseman
Barry Keith Grant
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0031


A major figure in American documentary cinema, Frederick Wiseman (b. 1930) began making his extraordinary series of films during the Direct Cinema movement of the 1960s. From the beginning of his impressive and prolific forty-year career, Wiseman developed a distinctive style and approach that set his work apart from that of his contemporaries. Wiseman’s films focus on institutions of various kinds, ranging from those concentrated within individual buildings (High School, 1968) to those international in scope (Sinai Field Mission, 1978), from institutions set up and maintained by government (Juvenile Court, 1973, Public Housing, 1997) to those less tangible ones organized by principles of ideology and culture (Canal Zone, 1977, Model, 1980). Many of his films ferret out the gaps between institutional theory and practice, demonstrating the shaping force of institutions themselves, which dictate to, as much as they serve, both clients and administrators. Wiseman is also interested in these institutions as social microcosms and as interwoven parts of the larger social fabric, and through a variety of stylistic techniques he encourages a reading of each institution as a synecdoche of American society generally. More dialectical than didactic, Wiseman’s films assume a spectator attentive to film form. Though at first glance his films may seem to resemble the fly-on-the-wall approach of Direct Cinema, they often rely more heavily on elements of cinematic style such as editing and framing to express a consistent vision of how institutions operate.


There are few books devoted solely to discussing the work of Frederick Wiseman. Atkins 1976 was the first and, given the year of publication, is devoted primarily to focusing on the sociological content of Wiseman’s early documentaries about publicly funded institutions. The first edition of Benson and Anderson 2002 was published in 1989, and it showed scholars seeking to grapple more directly with questions of form and style, and their relation to theme, in Wiseman’s films. Still, Benson and Anderson approach Wiseman’s documentaries from the perspective of rhetorical analysis, but Grant 1992, by a film studies scholar, provides close textual analyses of all of Wiseman’s films through Near Death (1989), proceeding from the premise that, as Wiseman has often said, documentary films can be as artfully structured and as complex as fiction. Siegel 2010 provides a comprehensive and more up-to-date overview of Wiseman’s work, including works for theater and opera. Mamber 1974 expertly places Wiseman in the context of the Direct Cinema and cinema verité movements, while Nichols 1981, by the most influential of contemporary documentary theorists, identifies Wiseman’s distinctive “mosaic” structure, a concept that has informed most subsequent discussions of the filmmaker’s work.

  • Atkins, Thomas R., ed. Frederick Wiseman. New York: Monarch, 1976.

    The first monograph published on Wiseman, it collects a number of essays and reviews from academic journals and popular magazines about the filmmaker and his work.

  • Benson, Thomas W., and Carolyn Anderson. Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman. 2d ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

    Detailed discussions of eight of Wiseman’s documentaries, incorporating interviews with Wiseman’s cinematographers and representatives from institutions examined in Wiseman’s films.

  • Grant, Barry Keith. Voyages of Discovery: The Cinema of Frederick Wiseman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

    Close textual analyses of all of Wiseman’s films from Titicut Follies to Near Death. Also includes discussion of Wiseman’s work in fiction filmmaking.

  • Mamber, Stephen. Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974.

    Pioneering book on American Direct Cinema and its practitioners. The final chapter on Wiseman traces the treatment of institutions in his documentary films from Titicut Follies to Essene.

  • Nichols, Bill. Ideology and the Image. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

    An examination of the ideology in a many forms of visual culture by an influential theorist and critic of documentary film. Chapter 7, on the films of Frederick Wiseman, focuses on the filmmaker’s mosaic structure within observational cinema.

  • Siegel, Joshua, ed. Frederick Wiseman. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010.

    Collection of a dozen previously unpublished essays on Wiseman’s films, published to coincide with a major retrospective of Wiseman’s films at the Museum of Modern Art.

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