Titicut Follies


“Bridgewater, like any maximum security prison, is not the kind of place you parachute into and hide in the hills and make forays into the cell blocks when nobody’s looking…. It took a year for me to get permission to make Follies.”  — Frederick Wiseman

Although American censorship of cinema has fluctuated with shifts in morality, only one film has ever been subjected to a court-ordered injunction for reasons other than obscenity and national security.  That film is Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies; or, as it came to be known for decades within the judiciary, Commonwealth v. Wiseman.

Where is the line between social activism and exploitation for commercial gain? How does one balance the public’s right to know with patient privacy, particularly when violation of the latter is justified, at least in the mind of the violators, as an altruistic campaign for more humane living conditions? And to what extent can one individual bend the law to serve what they perceive as the “greater good”?….

The setting is Bridgewater State Hospital, a Massachusetts correctional institution for the criminally insane. A young Boston University law professor who had recently turned to filmmaking approached the superintendent and began discussions on the possibility of filming a documentary inside the facility. Wiseman was no stranger to mental health: his mother was a prominent mental health advocate and philanthropist in Massachusetts for years, and Bridgewater had long been a case of controversy within the state for its primitive conditions, being part asylum, part prison, and funded by two separate state agencies with differing agendas. Consisting of 139 buildings over 1,500 acres, Bridgewater served several distinct populations: a hospital for the criminally insane; a prison for alcoholics; a facility for “defective delinquents suffering from gross retardation;” and a treatment center for the “sexually dangerous.” (These differing populations, and the various levels of expectant patient privacy rights granted to each, would be a large part of the controversy when the case hit the courts.) Bridgewater was used as a threat, as bargaining leverage in job negotiations and to keep the state’s mental health employees in line: “Do what you are told, or we will reassign you to Bridgewater.” It was somewhat Soviet sounding and no doubt created the intended chilling effect on those who received it. Even more confusing was the merger of medical and penal. Security guards sometimes took orders from doctors but also directed them in certain situations. Conflicts of authority abounded; and patients were in the middle.

Follies is the textbook case of verbal contracts gone awry. On the surface, and from the reaction to the film afterwards by the agencies involved, it would appear to the casual observer that Wiseman used deceptive tactics to film inside the facility, that the administration was duped by a declaration of false intentions. But the official record shows that not to be the case at all. In fact, the superintendent with which he first initiated talks, Charles Gaughan, who held Harvard degrees in English and Psychiatric Sociology, was himself interested in bringing attention to the horrible conditions present at Bridgewater, in hopes of obtaining public support for additional funding. The meetings he held with Wiseman and his associates were extensive and involved detailed discussions on Wiseman’s philosophical and social activist approach to documentary filmmaking, as well as Gaughan’s explicit intentions. Wiseman was in no way undercover or clandestine in his actions, or even shooting where he was not supposed to: he was merely capturing average workdays, with average slightly-bored employees going through the motions, with average patients enduring treatment that was considered humane by state standards. When finished editing, he screened the film before Bridgewater’s administration, per their agreement prior to filming. They provided their unanimous approval to move forward with release. There were plenty of moments where someone at Bridgewater could have second guessed the wisdom of such a decision, or pondered public reactions to forced tube-feeding and naked men wandering in stark corridors. But amazingly, no one did.

The hows and whys of the legal disaster that followed are way beyond the scope of what can be covered here. Suffice it to say that there was a good degree of back-pedaling by Bridgewater, at Gaughan’s level and above, once the film premiered at the New York Film Festival and outraged reviews starting hitting the press (oddly, some critiques in the media focused on Wiseman’s decision to show an old man nude, apparently not bothered by the old nude man being subjected to humiliation and mistreatment.) Ultimately, Bridgewater pulled the violation of patient rights card to get a court-ordered injunction to prevent release. It was shelved in 1969, the Supreme Court denying to hear the case. Thereafter, Wiseman could only show the film to mental health professionals and had to obtain full documentation from all present that they were licensed and able to attend under the terms imposed by law. Suits brought against the state of Massachusetts by the families of several who died from neglect at Bridgewater cited the suppression of Titicut Follies as a significant contributing factor in their deaths. The fight continued, and the case was not resolved until 1992, when the courts basically ruled that patient rights were no longer an issue for the film since many of them were now deceased. It was only then that Titicut Follies could be publicly shown.

Today, Titicut Follies stands as a stark reminder of how corrupt, entrenched, and indifferent some institutionalized systems can become if left to their own devices. Equally, it exemplifies the power of those from without (Wiseman) and within (Gaughan) to challenge these systems and bring them before public scrutiny. Wiseman went on to found Zipporah and has made countless films now considered classics of the cinema verite documentary form. Thus far, however, none have ended up the meandering ethical and legal saga of the long-banned film that kick started his career.