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Frederick Wiseman Receives ASC Achievement Award

Frederick Wiseman will receive an Award of Distinction from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). (January 03, 2006)
Frederick Wiseman will receive an Award of Distinction from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). The presentation will be made during the 20th Annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards celebration here on February 26, at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza.

The Award of Distinction is a special tribute that has only been presented to a few individuals during the past 19 years. Past recipients include film critics Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin, and historian Kevin Brownlow. Wiseman is only the second documentary filmmaker honored by the ASC. Albert Maysles was feted in 1998.

“Frederick Wiseman has earned the admiration of our members for his accomplishments and integrity as a nonfiction filmmaker,” says Russ Alsobrook, ASC, who chairs the organization’s Awards Committee. “His films are histories of our times. They are compelling stories about institutions that reflect our best and worst values.”

Wiseman has produced, directed and edited 35 long-form documentaries about such diverse institutions as a prison for the criminally insane, a public school, a police station, a race track, military basic training, a meat packing plant, a clinic for low-income patients, a ballet, a zoo, a library, public housing and the city of Aspen. His films have also explored such varied issues as domestic violence, and the lives of blind and deaf people.

He previously received a Peabody Award, and Career Achievement Awards from the International Documentary Association (IDA), Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival. He has also earned three Emmys® along with a long list of additional accolades.

Wiseman was born and raised, and still resides, in the Cambridge area of Boston, Massachusetts. He completed his undergraduate education at Williams College and earned an LL.B. degree from Yale Law School in 1954. Wiseman became a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association in 1955 and subsequently taught and did research at Boston University School of Law, and Harvard and Brandeis Universities.

He earned his first film credit in 1963 as producer of THE COOL WORLD, an independent feature about juveniles who lived on the wrong side of the law on the violent streets of Harlem. The film was his idea. He raised the money and asked Shirley Clarke to direct it. Wiseman says that experience demystified the filmmaking process for him. He has directed, produced, edited and recorded sound for all his other films.

TITICUT FOLLIES was his first documentary. He got the idea for making a nonfiction film about the state prison hospital for mentally ill criminals at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, during a 1966 field trip with his law students. It took about a year to get permission to film at Bridgewater. A Massachusetts court ultimately banned public showings of TITICUT FOLLIES for 24 years, ostensibly to protect the privacy of inmates. However, TITICUT FOLLIES set the pattern for Wiseman’s life work. His next three films had generic titles, HIGH SCHOOL, LAW AND ORDER and HOSPITAL. The emphasis was always on the relation between the institution and its clients, and the gap between ideology and practice.

In 1971, Wiseman organized Zipporah Films, Inc. His films have aired in prime time on PBS in the United States with additional broadcasts in Western Europe, Japan and other Asian countries. The company also distributes his films to libraries and schools. The Library of Congress is archiving the original negatives and audio tracks from all of his films for posterity.

Wiseman generally records 60 to 80 hours of 16 mm film and synchronized sound for each of his documentaries. There are no narrations, interviews or background music. His current work-in-process is a film about the Idaho state legislature.

“I shoot everything on film, because it creates an illusion of depth, with more vibrant colors and subtle tones that speak to the audience on an emotional level,” he says.

While he is primarily known for his documentaries, Wiseman is a versatile storyteller who has also produced and helmed several narrative movies, written many scholarly articles, and directed seven plays, including Samuel Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS, which is currently featured at the Comedie Francaise Theatre in Paris through January 14, 2006.

Wiseman began directing plays at a repertory theater in Cambridge during the mid-1980s. In 1996, he produced LA COMÉDIE-FRANÇAISE OU L’AMOUR JOUÉ, a documentary about the oldest repertory company in the world. The film takes audiences behind the scenes during preparation for and presentation of four classic French plays. That led to an opportunity for him to direct THE LAST LETTER, a play at La Comedie-Francaise in 2000. HAPPY DAYS is his second play at the Comedie Francaise.

ASC was founded in 1919. There are currently some 285 members today with roots in many different countries, and 145 associate members who work in ancillary sectors of the industry.

For information about the 20th Annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards, visit the ASC Web site ( or call 323-969-4333.

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