For almost half a century, Frederick Wiseman has been directing some of the finest documentaries ever made. In more than 40 films, he's taken his camera everywhere, from slaughterhouses to a school for the blind, a ballet company, abusive relationships, and into zero gravity. Tonight at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, the Miami International Film Festival is hosting a 20th-anniversary screening of Zoo, his 1993 exploration of Metrozoo.
"All the films are thematically related," Wiseman writes from Paris, where he is editing his next documentary, At Berkeley, about the California university. "My interest is in making films about as many different aspects of human behavior as possible."
In Zoo, Wiseman focuses his lens on the entertainment, business, and research sides of Metrozoo (now called Zoo Miami) to not only peek behind the bars and closed doors but also to examine the ethics of a zoo and of society as a whole. It's a beautiful film, at times very funny and at others heartbreaking.
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"All I thought in advance was that a zoo would make a good subject for a film," Wiseman says. What resulted was a story of how people struggle to control their lives and environments, how ersatz families form, and the way the wild side of all animals (including humans) will always stay alive no matter the obstacles. It's a delicately layered two hours assembled in his usual fashion: "The themes emerge only after six to eight months of editing, when I have studied and know the material," he says.
Though Wiseman established his aesthetic early in his career, his style remains unusual when compared to most documentaries made today. He does not interview his subjects. He favors long, unbroken takes. He lets human beings behave and waits for the unguarded moments that show life as it is. Wiseman's films provide an intensely compassionate but naked glimpse at usually hidden aspects of society.
"In addition to being dramatic narratives," he says, "I also like to think that my films are a form of natural history. Man and animals inhabit the Earth together. I am also interested in the various relationships between men and animals."
Twenty years later, much of what Wiseman saw of the zoo is gone or different. He has not been back since filming and does not plan to return. "I only rarely visit a place that has been the subject of a film after the film has been completed," he says. He does maintain friendships with some of the actors and dancers profiled in La Comédie-Française ou L'amour Joué (1996) and La Danse (2009) "since [they] share common interests."
Other than broadcasts on public television or the occasional screening, one of the only ways to see Wiseman's catalogue of films is by ordering DVDs from his website, zipporah.com. But tonight, we have a chance not only to witness one of the great masters at work, but also to see Miami as it was 20 years ago, a piece of our city's past and a piece of ourselves preserved forever.
Zoo screens tonight at 6:30 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. For tickets and more information, visit miamifilmfestival.com.
To learn more about Frederick Wiseman's films and to order DVDs, go to zipporah.com.
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