One of the most famous documentaries ever made has barely been seen by the general population. It never had a theatrical release, nor has it been released on home video. It was only televised once, and the filmmaker has refused to allow additional broadcasts. And if that’s not enough, it was banned by the courts from being publicly screened for a quarter-century.

The film in question is Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 “Titicut Follies,” and even today this production generates controversy for its contents and the manner in which it was created. Time has not diminished its emotional impact – it is still among the most disturbing films ever created – but it does allow for a fresh examination of what Wiseman presented and (more importantly, at least to this writer) what was not presented.

Wiseman was a professor at Boston University’s law school when he decided to try his hand at documentary filmmaking. His subject was the Bridgewater State Hospital in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Despite its name, it was not a traditional medical facility. Rather, it was part of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and it was used to confine prisoners deemed criminally insane. Rather than offer the traditional hospital setting of beds and rooms, the prisoners were kept in barren cells without furniture and plumbing – a mattress on the floor and a bucket were used instead.

There is no denying Bridgewater was home to plenty of insanity. Many of the inmates seen on camera appear to be in their own world: men standing around yelling in gibberish, cursing into the air, even breaking into song without provocation (unless they felt they needed to be entertaining for the camera aimed at them). But the criminal backstory behind these men’s confinement is largely ignored. Except for one man, who acknowledges his imprisonment for pedophilia, no one in the film ever gets to explain how they would up as prisoners.

And that is where “Titicut Follies” triumphs and fails. As cinema verite, it is a startling examination of the ebb and flow of Bridgewater’s routine days. There is no story line, per se, but only a series of everyday occurrences as the anonymous inmates and the Bridgewater staff interact freely. Yet at the same time, a significant chunk of the story is absent: just who are these people? Not just the inmates, but also the staff (particularly the correctional officers, who appear to have more contact with the inmates than the medical personnel and who clearly had to be affected by the depth of their work).

There are a few clues about some of the people here. A Russian man named Vladimir complains he was transferred from a penitentiary to Bridgewater over a year-and-a-half earlier for observation and he repeatedly requests being transferred back. He states the medication he is being given at Bridgewater is making him ill and the facility is wrecking his emotional health. The doctors he pleads with, however, state he is paranoid and prescribe stronger tranquilizers to calm his visible agitation.

But what is not shown is this: who is Vladimir? Why was he sent to jail? And why was he sent from jail to Bridgewater? And was he really sane, or were the medical experts (who come across as condescending and detached in the film) genuinely knowledgeable about his condition? It is impossible to determine if this is cinema verite or manipulative filmmaking.

Likewise, another inmate is the focus of a lengthy sequence where two correctional guards take him from his cell to the Bridgewater barber for a shave. The inmate is naked (as many of the inmates are) and he seems totally incapable of communicating. He speaks in weird, loud growls and snarls, and he clearly abhors eye contact. Some critics have faulted the correctional officers for treating the man in a patronizing manner by the way they speak to him (the guards are a bit loud and repeat the man’s name in each sentence when addressing him). But I can’t see abuse there – if anything, the guards are guilty of trying to communicate with a man who seems beyond the normal range of conversation. At the end of the sequence, there is a brief breakthrough: the inmate acknowledges he was educated to be a teacher. But what happened between his education and his incarceration? The viewer never knows.

Perhaps this manner of filmmaking is meant to build the sense of instability and unrest which permeates Bridgewater. Lord knows the film captures enough genuine scenes of unfortunate actions. Most egregious is a doctor in charge of tube-feeding a hunger striking inmate has a cigarette dangling from his lips as he inserts the feeding tube into the inmate’s nose. The viewer cannot help but wonder if the ashes of the cigarette will fall into the tube (they don’t). This lengthy sequence is intercut with a dead inmate’s body being prepared for burial – which offers a gruesome reminder that for many Bridgewater inmates, the only escape is into death.

But mostly, the sequences here are pathetic for their warped view of fractured humanity. There is a segment where an elderly inmate, who is clearly in his own world, happily splashes in a bathtub while three correctional officers sit around him and make sure he thoroughly cleans himself without drinking his bath water. A birthday party for an inmate brings a small level of happiness for the men who are gathered for a rare reprieve to enjoy cake and games. The film’s title comes from a variety revue staged by both inmates and guards – watching the performances, it is impossible to determine who is insane and who is on salary.

If anything, the film’s most dramatic moment is also its quietest. A diminutive inmate, surrounded by three large and lumpy guards, is told to remove his clothing. The inmate obliges and is quickly naked. He is then escorted by the guards up a staircase and through a labyrinth of hallways until he arrives at an open cell which has no furniture or signs of a toilet and sink. Without requiring instruction, the inmate enters the cell. A guard closes the cell’s heavy door and bolts it shut. The camera peers through a small window in the cell and finds the inmate looking out the cell’s barred window to the outside world. The inmate is in silhouette – as if he no longer existed and became just a living shadow.

“Titicut Follies” created a sensation when Wiseman debuted it at the 1967 New York Film Festival. It was immediately hailed as a shocking expose of human rights abuse of the mentally ill (though, ironically, no inmate in the film ever complains to the camera of being physically injured and none bear any marks of violent treatment). But Elliot Richardson, the Attorney General for Massachusetts, was horrified with the film and took an extraordinary step of seeking the court-ordered banning of the film. Richardson argued the inmates’ right to privacy was violated by Wiseman. The filmmaker, though, cited he had consensual waivers from the inmates who were coherent and he had a waiver from the Bridgewater superintendent on behalf of the inmates who were not (the superintendent, who actually hoped the film would work to raise funding for his facility, was the legal guardian for his mentally incompetent inmates). The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled against Wiseman and “Titicut Follies” was ordered removed from exhibition – with the sole exception being small non-theatrical screenings for selected legal, educational and medical professionals.

The ban on “Titicut Follies” marked the first time an American movie was prevented from being shown for reasons other than obscenity or national security. The ban stayed in effect until 1992, and the legal conflict cost Wiseman a great deal of money before he could present his film again. In 1993, Wiseman allowed “Titicut Follies” to be broadcast on PBS, which was the first and (to date) only time it reached a national audience.

So where is “Titicut Follies” today? Wiseman has yet to allow the film to be seen in commercial presentations. It is only legally available for rental through Wiseman’s Zipporah Films for non-theatrical screenings in a 16mm or videocassette format. Wiseman will sell a video of “Titicut Follies” to non-theatrical venues – for $500.

For those who don’t have $500 to spend on a videocassette, fear not. “Titicut Follies” is available from several collector-to-collector video services and at least two P2P web sites for a fraction of its official cost. The copy being presented in those outlets comes from the 1993 PBS broadcast, and the quality is more than fine.

“Titicut Follies” occasionally turns up in film society and festival retrospectives of Wiseman’s brilliant career. With luck, it may someday turn up on Netflix or at your local video store. Until then, you can only peek into the criminally insane world of Bridgewater via a dip in the Bootleg Files.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on November 18, 2005 in Features by

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  1. Heidi on Sat, 1st Oct 2011 4:06 pm 

    I know Vladimir’s whole story.

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  2. Nick on Tue, 17th Jan 2012 3:48 pm 

    @Heidi – so what is Vladimir’s whole story?

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