Two nights ago I went to see Frederick Wiseman’s 1974 documentary Primate and something very peculiar happened. Somewhere in the first half of the film, someone was talking to the camera giving an interview.
I’ve never seen this in a Wiseman film, and I thought that such a thing did not exist. So did my friends. So does pretty much everyone else. The entry on Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications website puts it well:
“Wiseman's aesthetic falls squarely in the ‘direct cinema’ tradition of documentary filmmaking, which emphasizes continued filming, as unobtrusively as possible …with no music, no interviews, no voice-over narration, and no overt attempt to interpret or explain the events unfolding before the camera.”
Wikipedia: “Wiseman does not interview his subjects, nor does he narrate or comment on what happens.”
FilmWest 40, an Irish site: “His films are marked by an absence of commentary or music and there are no direct interviews to camera.”
And back in 2002, yours truly wrote for the Independent Weekly that “Wiseman shuns the documentary conventions of narration and interview.”
Watching Wiseman’s films, rules seem to have been laid down. Strict parameters. Commandments. He’s made 37 movies, and as far as I know, this is the only time he has broken Thou Shalt Not Interview.
The interview is with a scientist explaining some research techniques at the institute where the film takes place, and it offers some perspective into what the doctors are doing in this movie. There's a lot of tough stuff to watch in Primate -- graphic scenes of chimps getting cut open and dissected while they're still alive, apes being sedated and then violated with vibrating anal probes.
My friend's argument was that without some explanation of scientific technique, Primate would wind up an animal rights film, which was surely not Wiseman's intention. So just this once, he decided to throw in an interview to set things straight.
I found that a little difficult to buy. Why this movie? Why would he break the rule just this once? No, I argued, it had to be that he broke the rule because there never really was a rule. His other films don't have interviews simply because they don't. This one does. So what?
I emailed Wiseman’s production company, and he was kind enough to respond. It turns out we were both wrong.
Wiseman: “The scene is in the film as a visual joke and in part to parody interview films.”
So, there ya go.