Welfare – Frederick Wiseman (1975)

In past years, several people have pointed out the work by Frederick Wiseman to me, in particular whenever I spoke of Lav Diaz and his rather long (feature) films, which explore the history and trauma of a country and society in depth. I have to admit that now that I have seen my first Wiseman film, I don’t quite see a relation to Slow Cinema the way I feel it, or would perhaps define it (if I had words for it). Nevertheless, there are some specifics that are quite interesting to consider in terms of slow film, perhaps also, yes, in relation to the films of Lav Diaz.

First of all, Welfare is an almost three-hour long documentary. Indeed, this goes against the usual perception of a documentary. There are exceptions like Adam Curtis’ pieces, but overall documentaries (just like feature films) tend to have industry-imposed time limits. Wiseman doesn’t seem to care about this, and this allows him to go into such depth that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Welfare is a long-form documentary that has a scope similar to slow films in that he shows vertical time. You might remember from earlier posts that I spoke about horizontal and vertical time, the former being a simple advancement of the story without going into too much depth. A vertical treatment of a subject is based on the director’s taking his time. It’s about feeling, psychological depth. It’s about the character first, the story comes second. Vertical time is usually something poetic, which you might think isn’t present in Wiseman’s film. And yet, you will find everything that is characteristic of a vertical story treatment.

Welfare places emphasis on those who are seeking help and feel like hamsters in a bureaucratic wheel. In several long-takes – I believe one is even longer than 10 minutes which is unusual for a documentary – he films conversations between those who seek help and those who decide about whether they can eat on that same day, or whether they have a place to sleep. Some conversations, cases, problems, feel endless, repetitive, often painful. But Wiseman keeps filming. He wants to get to the bottom of the pain that is so often forgotten in bureaucratic systems. This is the vertical you can usually only see in slow films. It’s vertical time that comes to the fore and it is because of this vertical time that Welfare has such a strong effect on the viewer. It’s like reading an 800 page novel and you get to know your character in such a way that you really identify with him or her. You know every single trait of that character, you have time to draw parallels between you and him/her, you actually have time to consider what’s happening to the character.

This is Welfare. It’s an 800 page novel. Perhaps it’s not slow, but it’s detailed, focused on individuals who are usually marginalised and forgotten. It’s vertical in its treatment of the subject, or rather subjects. The film is not only about the failing welfare system in America. The documentary shows several other facets of society, amongst them blatant racism. It is a portrait of America in the 1970s, and, perhaps crucially, it is a portrait of America today, because as far as we can gather from news items, very little has changed. The end of the film is quite interesting. It hit me and hurt me. Having lost his comfortable job with an income of $20,000 a year plus more for other work, having lost all his research work (stolen from him), his accommodation, having fallen from a hardworking successful member of society to a homeless man who needs to steal in order to survive, all of this after a stay in hospital and being told afterwards that he would no longer be able to work – this man, this character who sums up everything we have seen in the previous two hours plus, predicts that there wouldn’t be a United States of America anymore at the end of the 1980s if nothing changed. People would leave the sinking ship. It would be interesting to see the same documentary playing out in 2017…

Welfare is not a slow film. This much I can say. Nevertheless, the link to slow films and in particular to films by Lav Diaz, who uses long duration (and cinematic slowness) for an in-depth exploration of an individual’s pain, is clear. What both Slow Cinema and Frederick Wiseman’s work share is the use of vertical time, of duration, in order to get to the bottom of pain, of despair, of injustice; in order to make the viewer feel this pain, despair and injustice; in order to use their films as a cry for help.

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