Frederick Wiseman has spent a lifetime piecing together sounds and images captured from the daily flow. These patchwork projections of our common life play across the screen without voiceovers, written texts or talking heads–with no explanation at all, except for the baldest statement of subject matter. High School, Hospital, Public Housing: Weigh these brief titles against the ensuing events–three or four hours’ worth of them, usually–and you understand that Wiseman’s concerns are both social and philosophical. How much experience must we accumulate to gain a little knowledge? How much, or how little, does our knowledge inform the evidence of our senses?
In his latest documentary, Domestic Violence, Wiseman reveals that this philosophy can be a matter of life and death.
Imagine a cramped house somewhere in Tampa, Florida, late at night. In rooms where the lights are turned low or turned off, the camera’s lamp casts a glare over bare walls, sparse and rumpled furniture, and the thin, shirtless torso of a man. He has the hair and mustache of George Armstrong Custer and a low-voiced drawl to match, deployed with pride in his vocabulary and a drunkard’s pretense of self-possession. He is the one who called the police, and who greets them with a long-neck beer in his hand. He says he wants no trouble to arise from his dispute with the woman in the bedroom.
On the face of it, the man’s complaint might seem plausible: He wants the woman to leave his property, and she won’t. But since, by his own admission, she has lived there for nine months–long enough to establish legal residence–the two cops must take General Custer into the next room, to consult with the other party about her wishes. They find her holding on to the bed as if it were a lifeboat, from which she might be tossed at any moment. She says she has a bad bladder infection; she says she’s exhausted; she says she’ll be willing to leave in the morning, but for now she has to sleep. Most of these pleas emerge through tears, the hands raised in exasperation, the face averted. You see little more of the woman than a blond ponytail and a baggy T-shirt, even when the key words pop out: The man recently shot at her with a rifle.
At this assertion, the male cop glances toward the female, who nods. Yes, Custer had been arrested and released not long ago. "I’m really scared of him," the woman says, weeping. So why did she come back to his house? "I have nowhere else to go," she wails, as if she’s both desperate and fed up with the question. Will she now let the cops take her someplace safe? "I’ll sleep on the couch," she insists, and on her way through the doorway she brushes past Custer. He has just promised the cops that if she stays, it won’t be a peaceful night.
This scene is the conclusion of Domestic Violence. I give a lengthy account of it not to convey its impact–how could I even approach the horror?–but to testify that the surface details mean much more than they would have, had you witnessed them earlier in the film. On a philosophical level, the scene’s placement at the end of the film amounts to an empirical proof: What you’ve learned changes your understanding of what you see and hear. On the human level, what you see and hear amounts to utter catastrophe. Because this woman has not learned certain lessons that other women in the film have absorbed, she understands her situation in a way that’s likely to get her killed.
Wiseman brings us to this terrible knowledge by giving Domestic Violence a double structure. On one level, the film plays as a linear progression, taking place over the course of weeks or months. We follow a number of women and their children as they move out of abusive situations and into a shelter, where they begin to take control of their lives. On another level, the film plays as a cycle, which seems (through clever editing) to take place over the course of one day. We start by visiting scenes of abuse in the hours after dawn; we end at night, with one more devastating episode of violence.