For over five decades and in more than 40 films Frederick Wiseman, 88, has recorded the history of our times and helped us comprehend its meaning. In 2016 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him an Oscar for lifetime achievement. This year it included a Wiseman film, “Ex Libris,” a documentary about the New York Public Library, on its short list of potential nominees for documentary feature. When the final nominees were announced, on Tuesday, “Ex Libris” was not among them.
Disappointing, perhaps, but Wiseman will be receiving an honor that is in some ways more significant: He is one of three filmmakers (along with Agnès Varda and Wim Wenders) selected to deliver this year’s Norton Lectures at Harvard. He’ll be joining the august company of such past honorees as T.S. Eliot, Nadine Gordimer, and Toni Morrison.
Wiseman spoke on the phone from his Paris residence (he also lives in Cambridge) a few days before the final Oscar nominations were announced. Here are some of his thoughts on awards and his working process.
Q. Congratulations on being included on the Oscar shortlist.
A. That was nice. I was pleased about that. I’ve never been on the list before. But I’m not the least bit anxious about it. I’ve been around a long time.
Q. Congratulations also about being chosen for the Norton Lectures. It must look good on a resume.
A. It came completely out of the blue. It’s a great honor.
Q. Could you give us a preview of what you might be talking about?
A. I’m basically going to talk about what I know or what I think I know. I’m going to go into considerable detail about the way I work and I’m going to illustrate it with sequences from the films.
Q. Would you describe your filmmaking process as inductive?
A. It’s more based on what I find and my reaction to it. It’s really a gamble. I have no idea what it will be. The themes emerge only towards the end of the editing. I’ve never had a project where I had the thesis in advance. Because it’s impossible. I don’t know what material I will have. I’m at the mercy of my experience and my judgement.
I’ve kept the same approach for 50 years, from the very first film. It just appealed to me as a method. I didn’t see that my being in the film or my voice would add anything. I liked the idea that I could present unstaged events, even though they’re highly edited. But the words and gestures and the clothes that people wear are not my selection. I didn’t create them. I found them, and I use them.
Q. Your new film has been seen by some as making a political statement.
A. I didn’t set out to make it that way. I finished the editing two or three days after the election, so I didn’t have Trump in mind when I made the movie. But Trump’s idiocies and his contempt for science, education, knowledge, and the humanities has since become evident and the library represents everything he doesn’t. Inadvertently it has become a political movie because it represents all the traditional humanistic values, as opposed to Trump’s attitudes towards public education, his racism, ignorance, and denial of climate warming — everything the library represents he’s against. In that sense it’s become a political movie. I didn’t have that in mind when I made it. When I made it, I wanted to make a film about the library.
Q. Do you think documentary filmmakers have a greater responsibility to expose the truth at a time when in some quarters the truth and facts are held in contempt?
A. Not just documentarians. I think everybody does. But I’m not sure how much documentaries change the world. I think a lot of political documentaries just preach to the converted. If people want to effect political change they should get involved in politics, that’s the most direct way to do it.
Q. You started out making “Titicut Follies” (1967) which is a hellish descent into the insane asylum of Bridgewater State Hospital, and most recently made “Ex Libris,” an inspiring look at a magnificent cultural institution. Would you say you are becoming more optimistic as time goes on?
A. No. If I started with “Ex Libris” and just now made “Titicut Follies,” you’d say the reverse. I don’t think any single movie represents a general attitude of mine, but represents my attitude towards the subject matter of the movie. My guess is that if I made “Titicut Follies” today and [Bridgewater] was like it was in 1966, it wouldn’t be exactly the same movie, but it would be a pretty similar point of view. The movie is always a response, at least to my mind, to the experience of making the movie. It doesn’t reflect a general attitude about whether you’re optimistic or you’re pessimistic. It’s the external world that provides that undercurrent. It’s not in the movie but in the movie in comparison to what’s happening in the country.
Q. After the controversy surrounding “Titicut Follies” [it was barred from public exhibition in Massachusetts until 1991 ] did you have trouble gaining access to any place to film?
A. Not at all. It’s been extremely easy. My great secret is to ask permission. In retrospect the film I had the most difficulty getting permission for was “Titicut Follies.” The rest were all pretty easy. All I did was ask. And everybody said yes.
Q. What would you do if you got permission to film in the White House?
A. I’d start tonight.
Frederick Wiseman will deliver his lectures “The Search for Story, Structure, and Meaning in Documentary Film: Part I and Part II” at 4 p.m. on Monday and on February 5 as part of “Wide Angle: The Norton Lectures on Cinema” at Sanders Theatre, 45 Quincy St., Cambridge. Go to mahindrahumanities.fas.harvard.edu/content/norton-lectures.Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.