review, visuals

Revisiting Titicut Follies

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The authenticity of Wiseman’s depictions of the Bridgewater prison is out of the question. Inevitably the minor influence of the camera on Wiseman’s subjects is in fact in this case insignificant, because no matter how the subjects dramatize their behavior, they behave in a way that they want to be perceived under social expectations. Wiseman gives no intervention in his silent shooting of the scenes, strong and eye-opening evidence of the interaction among the guards, inmates, interrogators, psychiatrists, nurses, and social workers, which would otherwise not be seen by the public. Wiseman distinguishes his approach from other documentarians of his time by using a mosaic structure beyond objective chronological accounts of events (Grant, 2006). Named after the inmates’ talent show (meaning Taunton River in the Wampanoag language), this documentary is a valuable record of prison culture in its presentation of a valid microcosm of the state institution in its treatment of the mentally insane criminals in the 1960s.

The prison is a mechanism of to regulate the criminals under facilitation of the state. This film is a great example of creative independent accounts of prison experiences. It reminds me of anarchist performer and installation artist Ai Wei/wei’s music video Dumbass (2012) which depicts mundane scenes during his incarceration while he curses the government’s surveillance and censorship. Another example that came to mind is the creative work another expatriate author posted on Facebook. Liao Yi/wu, a Berlin-based dissident poet previously imprisoned in the 1990s directly due to his public outcries after the Tian/anmen Massa/cre, reported on the “food menu”, an alternative list of humiliation methods used by guards in the prison where he was jailed. It comprises of graphic and gruesome physical torture and mutilation he had seen and experienced in the jail. From Titicut Follies to the two Chinese artists’ independent accounts, the torment designed and executed by the personnel who feed on the prison system pretty much stay the same if not diversified. In the two Chinese cases of different historical periods, those people in power have kept the tradition of legitimizing their role and finding pleasure by torturing inmates. Being obligated and encouraged to perform these tasks has promoted the accumulated achievements in their professional career.

In Titicut Follies the employees of the prison are also performing their daily tasks. The prison culture, as seen within the state facility of Bridgewater, is an alternative presentation of the social reality in terms of power relations. Whether we question the element of care and sympathy they have in treating the inmates, their actions in handling those labeled “criminally insane” have been normalized and hence perpetuating the state-designated system of keeping this population under control. It takes time but less thinking to socialize themselves into role-playing the jailors. Not surprisingly, recent reviews of the film and reports on Bridgewater situations continued to expose the atrocities and injustices from the prison that victimized the inmates, and calls for law changes. Not familiar with the American situation but drawing on my knowledge of the prison police training program where a couple of high school acquaintances joined, the training does not require academic knowledge, or rather, its education tries to diminish the chance of critical thinking among the candidates. It requires a brainwashing process to condition the prison police candidates into serving the country and protecting the community in the government’s terms. They are constantly being told that what they do is good for the community, and of the absolute justice in their execution of glorified tasks.

According to Arendt (1963), the most impressionable are those who are conditioned to resort to thoughts over thinking. This point on harm-causing motives is particularly valid in the situation of Bridgewater where the jailors feel they are at a mental and moral high ground to regulate the inmates. In Titicut Follies, they whistle when they open the cellar gates, make fun and comment on those who do not keep their cellars clean, remind the inmates of their mental instability, force feed inmates food and medications etc. There are many scenes of treating prisoners like objects. In the bathing scene in particular, four jailors stand around the tub and stare at an inmate bathing in the filthy water, while giving advice on how he should bathe himself. Humiliating the inmates at the lowest level of their freedom is a form of entertainment to the jailors. Or how else can the police feel good about their life working in an asylum?

Works Cited

Ai, Wei/wei (Lyricist). Doyle, Christopher (Director). Zuo-xiao-zu-zhou (Composer). (2014). Dumbass.

Arendt, Hannah. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York : Viking Press.

Grant, Barry Keith. (2006). Five Films by Frederick Wiseman: Titicut Follies, High School, Welfare, High School II, Public Housing. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Liao, Yi/wu. (2014).

Wiseman, Frederick. (1967). Titicut Follies.


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