Frederick Wiseman brings 5 decades of documentary experience to BAMPFA

Ketki Samel/Staff

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For the 2013 film “At Berkeley,” documentarian Frederick Wiseman accumulated about 250 hours of footage that would be distilled into a (relatively) sparse four hours. Wiseman came to campus under the auspices of making a film focused on the campus’s administration, but all his material would end up coming without schedule or scene blocking.

This process, of finding the story within the setting and the “100,000 choices” that have gone into any one of his nearly 50 projects, became the focus of Wiseman’s Thursday evening lecture at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA.

Wiseman took the stage with the air and look of a consummate old-school filmmaker — hair askew, suit slightly rumpled, glasses hanging around his neck. The talk was casual, guided by a selection of clips Wiseman had at the ready and followed by a Q&A lightly mediated by Bay Area film critic Michael Fox.

One of the main subjects of discussion was the editing process of Wiseman’s filmmaking, and of bringing structure and meaning to upward of 100 hours of footage.

Wiseman likened his shooting process to Las Vegas, in that collecting shots was a roll of the dice. “Sequences are accumulated as a result of luck. … Be ready to shoot anything interesting that’s going on,” Wiseman said.

Throughout the talk, Wiseman showed clips from three of his film: the opening sequence to “At Berkeley,” a 10-minute selection from the 1999 film “Belfast, Maine” and a scene from one of his earlier films, 1975’s “Welfare.” For each clip, he broke down the various aspects of the scene that emerged to him as meaningful, though he emphasized that much of significance came down to the editing room.

He said for most films, he accumulates about 150 hours of film over six to eight months, which is pared down to a first cut that is typically about 40 minutes longer than what will be the final version. And most of Wiseman’s films run at least three hours.

“I deceive myself into thinking I know what’s going on,” Wiseman said. “I have to explain to myself what is going on, and I have to think about the relationship between the literal and abstract. … You find the film in the editing.”

In terms of his process within the task of editing, Wiseman framed it in terms of his inspirations. “My model is more novelistic than journalistic,” he said, citing literature as his central inspiration in creating his documentaries.

This was evident in his reading of a scene from “Welfare,” in which a couple are consulting with a welfare officer. In the self-contained environment of the welfare office, every exchange and frame had weight in the dialogue and interactions between individuals. Wiseman pointed out examples of nonverbal communication between the couple, and how editing helped him highlight those exchanges.

“Even if I wanted to hunt for it I can’t, because I can’t know what people are going to say or do. … What I have to (do) as an editor is think through the material,” Wiseman said.

Wiseman’s talk also delved into the minutiae of his filmmaking, such as the fonts he chooses to preface the often monosyllabic titles of each of his films, and the way he goes about recording sound. Although he is seemingly always isolated from the immediate picture onscreen, Wiseman said he could essentially be found in every shot, because he holds the microphone in every one of his frames.

There was an acerbic tone throughout the night, with Wiseman cracking frequent jokes in between meditations on his auteurship. On the subject of when he decides to wrap up a film: “When I get tired of motel life and want to go home.” On if he learned anything useful during his time in law school: “Not to go to class.”

The talk ended with some final meditations on his filmmaking prompted by questions from the audience. “Your films are very visual,” one audience member said, to which Wiseman replied, “Good.” Then, as a final rumination on his process, Wiseman concluded, “If the film works, it works because it has resonance. … The real film takes place between the literal and abstract.”

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].