"The greatest documentary of all times," said Robert Coles about Titicut Follies, the 1969 documentary by Frederick Wiseman. A black and white look inside the Bridgewater, Mass. institution for the criminally insane. It was so honest and shocking it was not allowed to be shown to the general public until 1996. The men [all are men] are stripped and kept naked when indoors, locked in empty cells with spy holes in the doors. The burly guards seem unfeeling, the harass some men, they force feed them [the scene couldn't help but make us think of water boarding], some meds are given but the men in this movie are not turned into zombies by heavy doses of sedating drugs, they do not seem violent against anyone, but lost in their own degraded worlds, some shouting, some singing, some babbling some apathetic.
Intake interviews establish criminality, psychiatric interviews are without insight or compassion, discussions of diagnoses are cut and dry. The title "follies" is a show given mostly by staff members, well rehearsed singing and dancing supposedly for the entertainment of the inmates. The director of the establishment is a jovial, show-off MC of the show, a man surely as sick as any of the inmates, maniacal jolly.
The class discussion after the viewing elicited a comment from one man who lived in Bridgewater at that time. He said he often drove past the place and saw inmates outdoors tends gardens and orchards and thought it was an "all right" place. A couple of women who had been in health fields had stories to tell of equally awful institutions they worked in as very young women fifty years ago.
We'd like to think American institutions are much more enlightened and humane today but no one of us knew if that's true. We feel that in many other parts of the world similar places surely exist.
Why watch such films? Why put those images into our memories? Because it ratchets up our awareness of the possibilities, bad and good, of humanity; it makes us more sensitive to what it means to be human. I think that is the final aim of such docmentary film makers.
*What We Gain as We Grow Older* - Book and Contest - That is the title of a new book by German philosopher Wilhelm Schmid. I quoted from it last June when I wrote about the value of habit; Schmid includes an ...
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