Titicut Follies

Wiseman, Frederick

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Jones, Therese
  • Date of entry: Nov-16-2009
  • Last revised: Nov-12-2009


Titicut Follies is the first major, full-length documentary by Frederick Wiseman, generally considered to be the most successful independent filmmaker in the United States.  Titicut Follies (the title of the film is taken from an annual talent show produced by inmates and staff) was filmed at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, a sprawling facility of four divisions with four distinct populations.  Of the two thousand men warehoused there in the 1960s, only fifteen percent had ever been convicted of a crime, yet the institution was administered by the Department of Corrections rather than the Department of Mental Health--units representing very different and contradictory goals.  At the time of the filming, there were only two psychiatrists and one trainee caring for the six hundred men in the hospital section. 

Wiseman believed that public awareness of the terrible conditions at Bridgewater would create a demand for reform and improvement, and he gained unlimited access to the facility by representing the project to administration and staff as educational.   The result is a bitterly critical, shockingly brutal documentary account of the prison hospital, and despite giving Wiseman permission to make the film, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts quickly moved to ban its release.  In September 1967, just days before it was scheduled to be screened at the New York Film Festival, the attorney general filed an injunction that would permanently forbid Wiseman from showing the documentary to any audience.  In 1969, the Massachusetts Supreme Court permitted limited use for doctors, lawyers, health-care professionals, social workers and students, and in 1991, the courts finally allowed its release to the general public.  Titicut Follies is the only American film whose use has had court-imposed restrictions for reasons other than obscenity or national security.


The dominant mode of Titicut Follies is observational, also called "direct cinema," which was popularized by Wiseman.  It stresses the non-intervention of the filmmaker and relies on editing to enhance the impression of real time, affording viewers an opportunity to look in and overhear the lived experience of others and creating an effect that what they see is what occurred spontaneously before the camera with little or no modification or intervention.  Using relatively new technologies such as high-speed film that enabled shooting in natural light, telephoto lenses, and a directional microphone that picked up the slightest sounds, Wiseman and his crew openly and freely photographed the facility, capturing horrifying images of naked inmates being tortured by guards, being confined to bare, unlit cells that were periodically hosed down, and being force-fed. 

The film can serve as a paradigm case for an examination of issues endemic to the documentary enterprise such as the balance of risks and benefits, the principle of informed consent, and the norms of privacy.  Because the subjects of the film were patients--in this instance, wards of the state in a prison hospital--ensuring their capacity to make informed decisions as well as protecting their privacy became highly problematic.  In response to charges by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that Titicut Follies was a sensational, exploitative film of limited educational value, Wiseman countered that the public had a right to know what transpired in a public-supported institution.  Moreover, when challenged by the state regarding specific shots such as the verbal and physical abuse of a nude inmate and the intake interview between a psychiatrist and child-molester (both of which resulted in identifying patients by name), Wiseman simply responded that he assumed that all the subjects were competent unless the staff informed him othewise, putting the moral burden and ethical responsibility squarely back on the hospital's personnel.   With the exception of one instance, no staff member asked filming to stop at any time.  In fact, staff members became so involved in the filming that they alerted crew members to potential situations that might be of interest.

Wiseman's films are both artistic experiences and social documents.  Titicut Follies is firmly placed within a documentary tradition driven by a desire for social justice, and its unflinching view of the inhumane conditions at Bridgewater proved successful in ultimately getting the facility closed.   

Primary Source

VHS and DVD available for rental or purchase