Titicut Follies

Directed by Frederick Wiseman

The film is a stark and graphic portrayal of the conditions that existed at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts. TITICUT FOLLIES documents the various ways the inmates are treated by the guards, social workers and psychiatrists.

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  • ★★★★★ review by Patrick Pryor on Letterboxd

    Too real. I've been in and out of various psychologist/psychiatrist/therapist's (or whatever they want to call themselves) offices. Some were helpful in this day of modern medicine! But I still feel like it's kind of impossible for the human mind to truly know and analyze itself. Case in point the almost absurd plight of Vladmir in Titicut Follies.  He logically argues how the insane asylum makes him sicker, but the doctors dismiss him as paranoid.  They prescribe tranquilizers to make him calm and complacent. Psychiatrists ask probing and irrelevant questions about his belief in God and how many times a day him and his friends use the toilet.  I still feel like a lot of psychiatry involves doctor bias. They force their hangups on you and find you sick or depraved if you don't line up with their way of thinking. 

    Thank the good alien shaking a snow globe containing our island Earth that mental health facilities have improved since the '60s. But traps still exist. One of the most frightening times of my life, I was a 21-year-old jabronie stuck in the hospital and almost put away until my girlfriend at the time burst in and reasoned with the doctors.  It's a slippery slope, mental health institutions. Doctors insist on trying to make you well, but keep you trapped in a cycle of doubt and paranoia. How can you get better when you're cut off from the outside world? How can you feel well when psychiatrists keep insisting you need help and tut-tutting your every logical plea for release?

    Titicut Follies cuts to the marrow of this issue and asks the hard questions by remaining a quiet observer. The staff indicts themselves, harassing naked inmates and trapping them in a labyrinthine mess of purtitanical righteousness. If we don't believe in God or love our mothers and fathers too much or too little and take too many poops a day, we must be sick right? 

    The more things change, the more things stay the same.

    EDIT: Shout out to the dude snoring behind me. And the chatterboxes the host had to shush. Is it just me or did the crowd get restless halfway through the movie?

  • ★★★★ review by Robert Beksinski on Letterboxd

    Wiseman's documentary is among some of the greatest examples of how powerful film can be. It can be much more than a form of entertainment or even an art piece. It can have the power to change the world.

    Titicut Follies is most notable as being banned in the U.S.A. of all places for nearly 25 years (going as far as destroying all known copies from distribution) and still even today it is a film that is difficult to get a hold of and never really released or distributed properly. Despite its ban which most certainly comes as a form of censorship rather the actual reasons used (violating patient's privacy and dignity which could be more of a accusation towards the institution instead of the filmmakers) it severely helped change the way these type of places are run. It spawned many closings and cutting of funds from a variety of mental institutions across the nation including perhaps the reasons for why the Bridgewater State Hospital which was depicted in the film also closed down.

    The Bridgewater State Hospital is a Massachusetts correctional institution for the criminally insane. It's a miracle that documentarian Frederick Wiseman gained permission to shoot this film there in the first place. And as all with human nature when we are subjected to public display we do not always fully carry on as usual. Knowing this as a natural reaction especially when being filmed, the harsh realities shown within the Bridgewater institution were most likely even toned down compared to how they act normally. The mastery of this documentary compared to others is how Wiseman just goes in there with a camera and films without any of the normal documentary conventions such as talking head interviews, narration, or any type of filmmaker presence. About the only artificial thing he does do is stage his shots in some scenes.

    About the content of the film, at times it may seem like these inmates who are perceived to be criminally insane whom have at least committed some crime to be confined to such an institution are indeed the film's main subject. But then that does not appear so and an odd thing happens when as a member of the audience the people whom your sympathy is drawn towards is in fact the inmates. Call it a people versus the powers that be type of situation but when humanity is oppressed by a higher congregation, the injustices become crystal clear. There is a level of professionalism that is required to be in place at these kinds of facilities that is completely absent at Bridgewater as shown in this film. You could maybe chalk up some of the occurrences to the time period, this film being over 40 years old but only a few.

    The first thing I noticed was the sanitary aspect of the institution with no medical gloves used, precautions or other cleanly measures taken to insure the safety of the inmates. There is a scene with a feeding tube and man smoking a cigarette while performing the procedure that would make one grimace. There are also scenes of taunting by guards of the inmates with no respect shown. Also the man who keeps reoccurring throughout the film who puts up a very valid argument against the institution that it has only caused him more harm than good but they only look upon him as judgmental oppressors disregarding his case as being a paranoid schizophrenic. It is not even that he is requesting to be free but that he is sane and deserves to be in a prison not in that kind of facility. Many instances like these make the film feel like an absurdist twist of reality when horrifyingly it is all genuine.

    Titicut Follies is an important documentary and one that needs to gain more attention and recognition. It seems like the effects of the ban still shroud much of the public's knowledge of this film.

  • ★★★★ review by Peter Labuza on Letterboxd

    Attacking the work of the Direct Cinema movement, Jean-Luc Godard wrote, “Their eye in the act of looking through the viewfinder is at once more and less than the registering apparatus that serves the eye.” Wiseman’s eye, meaning his choice in framing within a particular location, is located in its gaze toward the patients of the hospital. He often shoots their faces in close-up when in interaction with the guards. This is one of the more crucial choices in his construction of how power is built and maintained at the institution he is recording. By denying access to the faces of the guards, Wiseman’s film thus gives more focus to the experience of the patients, who often appear panicked, confused, and scared. These close-ups, with often the guards and doctors turned away from the camera, create a sense of paranoia for the patients.

    Crucial choices in the way Wiseman narrativizes events in his films also return agency to the patients—or better yet, demonstrate a lack of agency. One of the most harrowing sequences shows the abuse of a patient who is constantly reminded to clean his room. The guards repeat this every few seconds to the patient’s aggravation, all while shaving and “caring” for him, which seems to create an adverse dependent relationship (he learns to take abuse while simultaneously being cared for). The patient becomes more and more aggravated at these constant reminders, but never violently resists. At the end of a long take, however, Wiseman finally shows the patient’s “dirty” room, which is entirely empty. The patient marches around in the empty room in a harrowing rhythm. But what is missing here beyond the lack of a bed or any furniture? Were they removed because of an earlier confrontation? Did he make some sort of mess that has been cleaned up? This choice to leave the spectator with only the shock of the empty room is one of the clearest choices Wiseman makes, which is to capture the experience of the patients and their absolute lack of control in any situation.

  • ★★★★½ review by Dirk Diggler on Letterboxd

    Disturbing, scary, important, and unfortunately very true. It quickly becomes very clear that the Institution and its staff and treatment do more harm than good. It utilizes a raw and brutally honest fly-on-the-wall technique and no narration, as it just lets the images speaks for itself. Some of the images in this film were really hard to look at, you just wish it was fiction. Imagining living like this is terrifying. It's not a technically excellent film like The Thin Blue Line for example, but its message and its emotional power is something else.

  • ★★★★½ review by sintendo64 on Letterboxd

    This isn't really a review of the film, it's more of a personal piece about the conditions depicted in the film versus my own experiences in a psychiatric ward.

    I have BPD and depression, and when I was living on my own at university for the first time, both of them really hit me hard. I tried to kill myself twice, and was hospitalized both times for around a month each. I can tell you with an utmost certainty that this is a truly horrifying, disturbing and triggering film. Granted, my time spent in "mood disorders" units has not been even the tiniest bit close to how extreme the Bridgewater asylum is, and I am incredibly grateful that the mental health network has advanced this much in the half-century since this was made, but I can't help but see some similarities between the practices then and now.

    The way that the guards yell and tantalize the inmates is just so barbaric. Their taunts seem to transcend onto the inmates as unadulterated torture, sometimes even manifesting into physical torture. We see an inmate being force fed, and Wiseman intercuts this scene with shots of the same man's embalming, making the scene even more disturbing than it could be.From my time spent in the unit, I have witnessed a different form of verbal abuse than what is depicted in the film. Condescension. There were a lot of nurses, doctors even, who seemed to show no content for their job, and sometimes took this frustration out on patients. Medication is not solely the answer in these wards - we must be treated as equal beings as well, that just improves the atmosphere so much. I do realize how hard the job is, and how draining it can be dealing with patients who are difficult to handle, but don't forget that venting your frustrations onto another patient who has already gone through severe mental trauma is only making their stay worse, and perhaps prolonged.

    The most terrifying aspect of this film resides in the case of Vladimir. We see him complain in vain to the psychiatrists about the conditions of the hospital, saying they're only making him worse rather than better. As he lists the reasons that disturb him, you can tell that the panel of doctors are completely uninterested in his case. It like he's talking to a brick wall - all of his complaints bounce off the doctors as they keep recommending the same treatment over and over. I've experienced this personally, you are just absolutely helpless. Anxiety ramps up, your stomach twists, tunnel vision... there is literally no way out. Either you stay and lapse over and over again, or you try to get out and only make the situation worse for yourself.

    In one of my experiences, I didn't step outside for weeks. I tried asking the doctors over and over again that a few minutes outside would improve my mood, but nothing. I had a lot of breakdowns, and was eventually misdiagnosed with bipolar. Took a lot of different medications too. I felt like an experimental guinea pig, and my stays were longer than they should have been.

    There was another older patient in my ward who was being treated with electroshock therapy. Every time it made him worse, he was definitely deteriorating. His complaints towards this treatment were not met as well. I don't know what happened to him after I left, but I hope he's doing alright today.

    Don't get me wrong, the way that we treat mental illness today is much, MUCH better than how it was then. The vast majority of doctors I've seen have been pleasant experiences. The medications and therapies that are available today are, from what I have seen in this documentary, vastly better than before, and will only continue to get better. Despite the setbacks, my stays in mood units have vastly improved my mental state. I wouldn't be alive without them. That's not to say that there isn't room for improvement, I'm only one person talking about my personal experiences. Others find the system today to be less helpful, and we need to continue to strive for a better care system that meets the needs of everyone. In any case, Titicut Follies continues to serve as a reminder of how horrible and cruel we once were, and still can be, towards those in need of help.

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