by filmmaker Frederick Wiseman
The question is always asked, whether it is regarding Crazy Horse or any of my other films, does the camera change the behaviour of the people filmed? My experience from 46 years of documentary filmmaking is that the camera has little or no effect on the people being filmed. If the camera could change behaviour then it would be a candidate to replace many of the behaviour change therapies! If people do not want their picture taken they say "No," thumb their noses, make an obscene gesture or simply walk away. 99.99% of the people I have approached about participating in my films have instantly agreed. How can I be sure that they are not acting for the camera? I cannot be 100% sure. My judgment is based on experience and the reasons given below.
First, most people are not good enough actors to change their gestures, words and posture because they are being photographed. If most people could assume another role that quickly then the level of acting on Broadway and in Hollywood movies would be much higher than it is because there would be a much larger pool to choose from.
Second: a documentary filmmaker, like people in other professions (teachers, doctors, lawyers, really anyone who deals with many people on a daily basis) usually has a pretty good idea when they are being conned or lied to.
Third: people are flattered that someone is interested in them and wants to take their picture and record their voice. It is difficult to underestimate the power of vanity and narcissism.
Fourth: and perhaps most importantly, most of us do not see ourselves the way others do. The best and most extreme example of this is a sequence from Law and Order, a film I made about the Kansas City Missouri police department in 1968. In Kansas City in 1968, in order to make an arrest for prostitution the police had to have a price and an act. This meant that the undercover policeman had to pick up a woman, negotiate a price and a specific sexual act or acts, accompany her to a hotel room and get undressed and presumably at the last minute make an arrest. One night l was in the vice squad car with my crew. A call came in from an undercover policeman that he had been assaulted by a woman after he had arrested her for prostitution. We went to the seedy hotel and the bell hop said the woman had fled to the basement. We accompanied the police to the basement where they found her hiding under some broken chairs. The police dragged her out. One of them held her hands behind her back and the other put his arm around her neck and began to strangle her. There was no natural light in the basement but there was a strong light on the camera. The policeman choked the woman for about 20 seconds and then relaxed his hand. She turned to the policeman who was holding her hands behind her back and said (referring to the first policeman), "He was trying to choke me." The second replied "No, he wasn't. You were just imagining it." People watching the film have seen the policeman strangling the woman. The second policeman goes on to explain to her that if she wants to be a prostitute that is her business but that if she gets busted she should not protest or struggle but quietly go to the police station to be photographed, finger-printed and fined and then she could be back out in the street in thirty minutes. Under no circumstances should she struggle or resist arrest. He was introducing her to the rules of the game between prostitutes and police and telling her she was being choked because she was not playing by the rules. If she played by the rules she would not have any problem. I do not believe the police would have killed her had we not been there. They were introducing her to the police-prostitute ritual. Choking a woman who has knocked an undercover policeman down the stairs was not acceptable behaviour. The police did not see their actions in the same way we the film spectators do. We are upset at this example of brutality while for the policeman it is, in the context of his work, acceptable behaviour. I cite this extreme example because I think we all act in ways we think are acceptable but do not not necessarily view ourselves as others do. I think this is is the principal reason most people have no objection to being filmed and it is therefore possible to capture a wide and diverse range of human behaviour on film.
At the Crazy Horse no matter where the filming was being done—in the dressing rooms, backstage, costume fittings, or in informal conversations among the dancers—no one ever refused to be photographed, looked in the camera or said or did anything specially for the film. The experience was consistent with the shooting of my other films.