Titicut Follies

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Titicut Follies
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Produced by Frederick Wiseman
Written by Frederick Wiseman
Cinematography John Marshall
Edited by Frederick Wiseman
Alyne Model
Distributed by Zipporah Films, Inc.
Release date
  • October 3, 1967 (1967-10-03) (United States)
Running time
84 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Titicut Follies is a 1967 American Direct Cinema documentary film directed by Frederick Wiseman and filmed by John Marshall, about the patient-inmates of Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, a Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. In 1967 the film won awards in Germany and Italy. Later on, Wiseman made a number of such films examining social institutions (e.g. hospitals, police, schools, etc.) in the United States.

The title of the film is taken from a talent show put on by the inmates of the hospital, which was named after the Wampanoag name for the nearby Taunton River.


Titicut Follies portrays the existence of occupants of Bridgewater State Hospital holed up in empty cells and only periodically washed. It also depicts inmates/patients required to strip naked publicly, force feeding, and indifference and bullying on the part of many of the institution's staff.


Titicut Follies was the beginning of the documentary career of Fred Wiseman, a Boston-born lawyer turned filmmaker. He originally took his law classes from Boston University to the institution for educational purposes and had “wanted to do a film there.” He began calling the superintendent of the facility looking for permission to film a year prior to production. Wiseman had previously produced The Cool World, a 1964 film based on Warren Miller’s novel and took that experience to inform his desire to direct. He drafted a proposal that was verbally agreed to by the superintendent, which later came into question when the film began distribution. Following that agreement filming did commence, with corrections staff following Wiseman at all times and determining on the spot whether the subjects filmed were mentally competent, adding further confusion to an already fraught process.[1] While on location Wiseman recorded the sound and directed the cameraman with his microphone or hand directions. He hired John Marshall as his cameraman, an established ethnographic filmmaker.[2]

Wiseman and Marshall spent 29 days documenting the conditions inside Bridgewater, and shot 80,000 feet of film. Wiseman then spent approximately one year cutting the footage into the final 84 minute narrative.[1]


Just before the film was due to be shown at the 1967 New York Film Festival, the government of Massachusetts tried to get an injunction banning its release.[3] The government claimed that the film violated the patients' privacy and dignity.[4] Although Wiseman received permission from all the people portrayed or the hospital superintendent (their legal guardian), Massachusetts claimed that this permission could not take the place of valid release forms from the inmates.[5] It also claimed that Wiseman breached an "oral contract" giving the state government editorial control over the film.[3] However, a New York state court allowed the film to be shown.[4] In 1968, however, Massachusetts Superior Court judge Harry Kalus ordered the film to be recalled from distribution and called for all copies to be destroyed, citing the state's concerns about violations of the patients' privacy and dignity.[6]

Wiseman appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which in 1969 allowed it to be shown only to doctors, lawyers, judges, health-care professionals, social workers, and students in these and related fields.[3] Wiseman appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.[5]

Wiseman has pointed out that he received permission from all of the people portrayed in the film or else their legal guardian, in this case the superintendent of Bridgewater. He believes that the government of Massachusetts, concerned that the film portrayed a state institution in a bad light, intervened to protect its own reputation. The state intervened after a social worker in Minnesota wrote to Governor John Volpe expressing shock at a scene involving a naked man being taunted by a guard.[3]

The dispute marked the first known instance in the history of the American film industry that a film was banned from general distribution for reasons other than obscenity, immorality or national security.[7] It was also the first time that Massachusetts recognized a right to privacy at the state level.[6] Wiseman stated that, “The obvious point that I was making was that the restriction of the court was a greater infringement of civil liberties than the film was an infringement on the liberties of the inmates.”[6]

Little changed until 1987, when the families of seven inmates who died at the hospital sued the hospital and state. Steven Schwartz represented one of the inmates. Schwartz's client who was "restrained for 2½ months and given six psychiatric drugs at vastly unsafe levels—choked to death because he could not swallow his food."[8] Schwartz claims that, "There is a direct connection between the decision not to show that film publicly and my client dying 20 years later, and a whole host of other people dying in between."[8] In fact, "In the years since Mr. Wiseman made 'Titicut Follies', most of the nation's big mental institutions have been closed or cut back by court orders."[9] In addition, "the film may have also influenced the closing of the institution featured in the film".[10]

In 1991, Superior Court Judge Andrew Meyer allowed the film to be released to the general public, saying that as time had passed, privacy concerns had become less important than First Amendment concerns. He also said that many of the former patients had died, so there was little risk of a violation of their dignity.[4] The state Supreme Court has ordered that "A brief explanation shall be included in the film that changes and improvements have taken place at Massachusetts Correctional Institution Bridgewater since 1966."[11] The film was shown on PBS on September 4, 1992, its first and only US television airing. Before the film a narrative warning and an introduction with Charlie Rose were played. At the end the message stating improvements were made was shown.

The film is now legally available through the distributor, Zipporah Films, Inc., for purchase or rental on DVD and for both educational and individual license. Zipporah Films released the DVD of the film to the home market in December 2007.


  • Mannheim-Heidelberg International Filmfestival: Mannheim Film Ducat, Frederick Wiseman; 1967.
  • Festival Dei Popoli: Best Film Dealing with the Human Condition; Florence, Italy; 1967.

See also[edit]



  • Carolyn Anderson and Thomas W. Bensson. Documentary Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, ISBN 0-8093-1518-1)
  • Barry Keith Grant and Frederick Wiseman. Five Films by Frederick Wiseman – Titicut Follies, High School, Welfare, High School II, Public Housing (University of California Press, 2006, ISBN 0-520-24456-7)


  1. ^ a b Carolyn Anderson, “The Conundrum of Competing Rights in Titicut Follies,” Journal of the University Film Association, 33, no. 1 (1981): 17, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20687550.
  2. ^ Anderson, Carolyn. "Documentary Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies". Retrieved 2010-10-30. 
  3. ^ a b c d Pearson, Jesse. "The Follies of Documentary Filmmaking". Vice. Retrieved 2008-04-21. 
  4. ^ a b c Mills, David (1991-08-02). "Mass. Court Lifts Ban On 24-Year-Old Film; Privacy Right Overruled for Wiseman's 'Titicut'". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-04-21. 
  5. ^ a b WISEMAN v. MASSACHUSETTS, 398 U.S. 960 (1970).
  6. ^ a b c Walker, Jesse. "Let the Viewer Decide." Reason 39 (2007): 50-56. 2007. EBSCOhost. American University, Washington, DC. 5 Nov. 2008.
  7. ^ Lesser, Wendy. "Unwise Restrictions", The Threepenny Review 48 (1992). 1992. JSTOR. American University, Washington, D.C. 5 Nov. 2008 <https://www.jstor.org/pss/4384055>.
  8. ^ a b Horn, Miriam. "Shining A Light On Their Follies", U.S. News & World Report 114 (1993). 12 Apr. 1993. EBSCOhost. American University, Washington, DC. 5 Nov. 2008.
  9. ^ Goodman, Walter. "Review/Television; An Unhealthy Hospital Stars in 'Titicut Follies'[permanent dead link]", The New York Times, 6 Apr. 1993: 13. 6 Apr. 1993. LexisNexis. American University, Washington, DC. 5 Nov. 2008.
  10. ^ Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, Incorporated, 2007.
  11. ^ Fredrick Wiseman (director) (1992). Titicut Follies. Zipporah Films, Inc. 

External links[edit]