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