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Documentarian coming to S.L.

Wiseman's films show us 'life as it really is'

In spite of what appear to be similarities in content, one of America's leading documentarians believes there is no comparison between documentary filmmaking and "reality television."

"These so-called reality TV programs are completely fabricated," Frederick Wiseman said. "There's no distinguishing what's real there and what's been set up to make the situation more dramatic."

That includes the television show "Cops," which Wiseman said "fails to show the context of its violent situations, simply to sensationalize them."

During a telephone interview from his office in Cambridge, Mass., Wiseman said he believes it is "the responsibility of film artists to show truth and reality, life as it really is."

Over the past 36 years, he has taken that responsibility upon himself, making documentaries that eschew dramatic re-creations, letting the subjects tell their own stories. "I never go into a documentary knowing what the film will say. That only happens once the subjects have had their say . . . and once we've gone through the editing process, of course," he said with a laugh.

This week, Wiseman becomes the first artist-in-residence for the Salt Lake Film Center, headquartered in the new Salt Lake City Library, 210 E. 400 South.

The 73-year-old filmmaker's three decades-plus of documentary work began with the controversial "Titicut Follies" in 1967, which examined the treatment of the mentally ill in a Massachusetts institution. His latest films, "Domestic Violence I" and "Domestic Violence II," recently aired on PBS.

There has been a recent resurgence in interest in documentary films, including an added emphasis by the Sundance Film Festival, which included a new section this year for foreign-made documentaries.

But that comes as news to Wiseman, who has been concentrating on making his movies and has not been paying attention to trends. "That's nice to hear, but I've never really cared if what I was doing was in fashion or all that popular."

For the first time in his rather lengthy career, however, Wiseman recently ventured into another form of filmmaking, directing "The Last Letter," an adaptation of actress Catherine Samie's one-woman monologue about a mother in a Jewish ghetto in 1941 writing a last letter to her son. Judging by audience reaction, it was a successful transition. The 60-minute film received a standing ovation at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

"After that response," said Wiseman, "I started wondering why I waited so long to do that. It's nice to hear something so positive after all this time."

Documentary events

This is a partial list of public events during the coming week with Frederick Wiseman, Salt Lake Film Center artist-in-residence (for a complete schedule go online to or

"The Last Letter," 2 p.m. today, Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, Park City, free screening.

"Domestic Violence," 7 p.m. Monday, Salt Lake City Library, 210 E. 400 South, free screening and discussion.

"The Last Letter," 7 p.m. Tuesday, Trolley Corners, 515 S. 700 East, free screening and discussion.

"Titicut Follies," 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah campus, 370 S. 1530 East, free screening and discussion.

"The Art of Documentary Films," 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Gould Auditorium, Marriott Library, U. campus, 295 S. 1430 East, free panel discussion with Wiseman and U. faculty.

"The Making and Reading of a Documentary Film," 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, free lecture.