In January, legendary documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who has been chronicling the lives of mostly American institutions for more than half a century, announced that he would finally be putting his movies online for the first time. Wiseman’s movies, which have been shot in mental institutions and on military bases, in hospitals and public parks, comprise one of the most monumental bodies of work by a single artist, but despite being awarded a lifetime-achievement Oscar in 2016, he’s remained something of a cult figure. His movies, which run as long as six hours, defy the rules of traditional theatrical distribution, and apart from a single PBS broadcast apiece, they’ve rarely been available to a mass audience.
That all changed today. As of this afternoon, a whopping 40 of Wiseman’s movies—nearly everything he’s every directed—are available via the streaming service Kanopy, which can be accessed through many public libraries, universities, and other institutions of the kind Wiseman has devoted himself to exploring in his work. (His latest, Ex Libris, is a portrait of the New York Public Library, and will be added to Kanopy after its PBS broadcast in the fall.)
The sudden appearance of such a treasure trove leaves cinephiles and documentary buffs with a new, much happier problem: Where to start? For practical reasons, I’d suggest beginning with some of the shorter films, including the canonical Titicut Follies and High School, or the more recent In Jackson Heights, a vibrant portrait of a diverse New York neighborhood that feels both crucial and hopeful in divided times. Or you could just follow the suggestions Wiseman himself offered in a January interview with Slate:
I like Essene, which is a movie about a Benedictine monastery. I like Sinai Field Mission. I think both of them are very funny. And also Primate. I think a lot of them are well-known. The movies that are most popular are some of the older ones and some of the newer ones, but there’s a whole group from the ’70s and ’80s that I don’t think are particularly well-known at all.