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IF YOU GO

What: A screening of the 1968 documentary “High School,” presented by the Sonoma Film Insitute

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28, followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, and film only again at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30

Where: Warren Auditorium, Ives Hall, Sonoma State University, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Admission: $5 suggested donation fee; $5 parking fee on all campus lots

Information: sonoma.edu/sfi; 707-664-2606

What is life really like inside a big city high school? What goes on in a mental institutuion, a juvenile court, a hospital or a big city library.

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has spent his long career finding the answers to those questions and passing them along to his audiences.

At 88, Wiseman has made 44 films, delving into the internal workings of all kinds of public institutions, and his work isn’t finished. His latest, a study of the township of “Monrovia, Indiana,” premieres Sunday and Monday at the New York Film Festival.

But first, he’s coming to Rohnert Park tonight to screen his 1968 classic, “High School,” at the Sonoma Film Institute on the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park. After the film, he’ll stay to answer questions from the audience.

Wiseman took time earlier this week to talk by phone from his home in Cambridge about his work.

Q: How much time do you spend on the road?

A: The last couple of years, I’ve spent a good part of the year in Paris, because I’ve edited my films there.

I am out on the road two or three months of the year when I’m shooting, and probably another couple of weeks talking about the films.

Q: How did you hit upon the method early on of systematically examining and documenting public institutions?

A: I don’t know. It just ocurred to me. When I was doing “Titticut Folllies (1967) I thought what you can do at a prison for the criminally insane you could do in other institutions. So it ocurred to me that a high school could be the next one.

It was a natural sequel to a prison for the criminally insane.

Q: Speaking of sequels, you did “High School” in 1968 and then you returned with “High School II,” at a different high school, in 1994.

A: Yeah, but it was a very different high school. The only similarity is that the students are the same age and it takes place in a building. Northeast High in Philadelphia, which is the one I shot in ‘68, had 4,000 students and 12 minority students, and the student-to-teacher ratio was about 28 to 1. Central Park East in New York City, where I did “High School II,” had 250 students. Forty percent were black, 40 percent were Hispanic and the rest were Asian, white and other. And the student-to-teacher ratio was three to one (currently listed at 16 to 1.) And the curriculum was completely different so basically, they were at opposite ends of the education spectrum.

Q: Did you get any impressions about how high school education had changed between those two films?

A: I’m reluctant to generalize about high school culture, because I only worked in two high schools and I don’t know really what’s going on elsewhere.

Q: Is there a common thread to your cinematic investigations in terms of how institutions serve their public?

A: The common thread is that I have looked at how they’re doing. I am interested in some of the same issues from film to film, but also the material is often very different. The institutional theme is only an excuse to see how people behave in certain situations, when they try to follow certain general rules of behavior in offering services to the public.

IF YOU GO

What: A screening of the 1968 documentary “High School,” presented by the Sonoma Film Insitute

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28, followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, and film only again at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30

Where: Warren Auditorium, Ives Hall, Sonoma State University, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Admission: $5 suggested donation fee; $5 parking fee on all campus lots

Information: sonoma.edu/sfi; 707-664-2606

Q: Were you always interested in the documentary or cinema verite kind of film?

A: I always have been. I made one fiction film but I’m mainly interested in documentaries.

Q: Why does that form appeal to you more than fiction that tackles social issues?

A: It’s not just social issues. It’s being able to film people as they actually act and speak. My films are really more novelistic than they are journalistic. They’re about common issues that exist in contemporary American life, but they’re not oriented toward any didacticism or exposition about social issues.

Q: Contemporary audiences have been exposed to films like the ones Michael Moore makes, which are basically editorializing.

A: Yeah, he’s editorializing all the time. I’m editorializing indirectly through structure.

Q: How does that work? Do you mean that in terms of the editing?

A: Yeah, the way I edit the sequences and the order in which I place them are my expressions of a point of view towards the material.

Q: Is that something that evolved during you career?

A: No, it’s been true from the beginning. That’s one of the things that attracted me to the technique.

Q: Is the creative process a matter of the editing as much as the filming?

A: The editing is very important, but you’ve gotta have decent pictures and good sound.

Q: What are some of the physical challenges involved in making these films? Are you trying to be an unobserved observer?

A: No, you are observed. The fact of the matter is that people don’t pay any attention. The physical challenge is standing on your feet carrying heavy equipment 12 hours a day.

Q: You’ve been doing this a long time, haven’t you?

A: I’ve been doing it for 52 years now.

Q: How big a crew do you use?

A: Me and two others. I direct and do the sound. I work with a cameraman and the third person carries the extra equipment and keeps track.

Q: Has handling the equipment gotten easier because of miniaturization?

A: No, because the camera still weighs the same. The sound recorder weighs a little less.

Q: How long does it take you to shoot a film?

A: “High School” was shot in a month. “Ex Libris” (2017, about the New York Public Library), one of my more recent films, took 12 weeks to shoot.

Q: I imagine you eat and sleep, but do you do anything else during a film project?

A: No. Well, very little. It’s a total immersion in the subject. Both the shooting and the editing are total immersion.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.

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