{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Titicut Follies

I read in a brief essay on John Houston's The Misfits by J.M. Coetzee , that the amazing thing about films is that the images that you see on screen actually existed in some time and space. He talks this not entirely from the perspective of actors who hold hands, kissed and sat together, but more from the perspective of horses who were supposedly ill treated in the film. I think he took horses as an example not because they are more animal than us in our worldview , but because they didn't know they are being filmed and thats why they never acted. Whatever is captured on screen is, nothing but, once-filmed-reality. The point I am trying to reach here is not the morality of such act (if that would be the case, Lars von Trier should be convicted first of all), but the immediacy, truthfulness of such imagery and the knowledge that it really happened at least once, which is at least one thing that the best of literature can't claim. This preciseness of imagery, to some extent, acts both as the power and powerlessness of cinema. And here we get the bifurcating thin line between films and documentary too. In The Misfits Marilyn Monroe was acting in a film but the horses were in a documentary, and thats why their pain looks more real and more harrowing.

Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies is a 1967 documentary about the treatment of patients/inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. It was banned in US from 1967-1992 because it violated the patients' rights to privacy. It is widely considered an essential piece of work for its direct cinéma vérité style and the issues it raise.

Titicut Follies opens with a stage performance by inmates of Bridgewater State Hospital, in its stark black and white photography camera moves from one seemingly happy or blank face to other, who are performing some sort of chorus songs with props (Its like sad song sung by some happy or blank faces). The title of the film is taken from the title of this stage show. As it progresses, we meet other inmates of the hospital. We try to find whats wrong with them and invariably find out that they are either too happy or too sad or too talky or too silent by "normal" standards.

In the middle of Titicut Follies, a naked old man dance thumping his feet in his "prison" cell, I felt almost ashamed of watching something that personal, which is not owing to the nudity, but because it has really happened and it is an honest expression of a person's illness. We fear that someone might enjoy it, laugh at it or someone can even generalize this behavior to madness. Titicut Follies treads in such delicate terrain, that raises it moral responsibility. One of the important properties of sincere documentaries is that they don't comment/remark themselves, they show what they saw without rigging the moral fulcrum. Titicut Follies does the same and hence it comes out clean as an honest document, not just any biased or illiterate humanistic propaganda.

Titicut Follies is not recommended to all (If you wish to ignore, read its tagline first!), many a times in this documentary, one involuntarily takes his eyes off the screen, and even start questioning about its awkwardness, but the strongest point that Titicut Follies raises is the nature of mental illness (one patient, who was supposedly suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and was asking for his release, was so logically persuasive and questioning that you feel jarred) and even more importantly the nature of such institutions, even though it doesn't portray such institution in any bad made-up light. They are doing their job (which in some ways inherently includes indifference, gentle ragging and bullying/forcing too [there is a scene where an inmate is force-fed, this scene is inter-cut with the scenes where other inmate is laid out for burial and we feel some comfort while watching the later]), there are no evil, sadistic wardens. We know, Wiseman is honest enough to show the better and lets you ask for yourself, is it any good.