Of the many important films to come out of the 20th century, Titicut Follies by Frederick Wiseman is also perhaps one of the most pivotal, though few have heard of it. A brutally honest deep dive into the treatment of patients at a state-run mental hospital for those deemed criminally insane, this documentary caused shockwaves upon its release in the late 1960s.
Spurring dozens of lengthy court battles and causing public outcry, the legacy of Wiseman's documentary has influenced the lives of patients in mental facilities, as well as works of media focused on mental health.
Bridgewater State Hospital Is A Facility For The Criminally Insane Whose Staff And Residents Went Unchecked For Decades
The history of Bridgewater State Hospital begins long before Frederick Wiseman's cameras began rolling. In the mid-1800s, the institution started out as a poorhouse and then a workhouse. Eventually, it became the institution showcased in Titicut Follies.
While Bridgewater is a state government-run institution, many of the hospital's inner workings seemed to demonstrate that not enough attention was paid to the treatment or wellbeing of the patients at Bridgewater. Specifically, the film painted a picture that placed both Bridgewater State Hospital and the Massachusetts government in a highly negative light due to the neglect that patients faced throughout the documentary.
The Title Comes From The Talent Show The Residents Of The Facility Were Forced To Perform
One of the documentary's first scenes comes from a talent show the asylum's residents were forced to perform. The camera pans over inmates wearing marching band costumes while singing.
Wiseman saw this event while filming and used it as the inspiration for his title due to its duplicitous meaning:
In naming the film Titicut Follies, I picked up on the metaphor of the variety show.
During this opening sequence, a small group of both patients and guards is shown on stage performing in the talent show. They sing “Strike Up the Band” and start performing with pom-poms. An MC named Eddie makes jokes to loud laughter before he's revealed to be a guard in the very next scene.
The entire performance is uncanny and appears to be analogous to the entire experience at Bridgewater State Hospital itself, as one critic notes:
The institution of theater, the variety show, that insists on the body falling into rhythm prepares us for a study of the coercive gestures that regulate the rhythm of the inmates at Bridgewater.
The Film Was Shot In 1966 By Frederick Wiseman, A Lawyer-Turned-Filmmaker
Frederick Wiseman actually had prior experience with Bridgewater before he made films - he started out as a lawyer and law professor at Boston University. During some of his outings with students, he would visit Bridgewater. This previous exposure was one of the reasons he reached out to the hospital when making the documentary.
Even more noteworthy than Wiseman's history with Bridgewater is the filming process of the documentary itself. Wiseman began filming in early 1966 and completed shooting for Titcut Follies in just 29 days. This process led to over 80 hours of raw footage.
The Film Shows Patients Being Treated As Animals, Often Naked, Abused, And Beaten
Unfortunately, what the film exposed was a hospital in which patients were severely mistreated. Many of them were left naked or forced to strip by the guards. One particular scene showcases the level of harmful treatment that Bridgewater patients endured; in the scene, a patient named Jim is taunted by guards until he gets upset as they pepper him with questions:
“How come your room is so dirty, Jim?"
“You going to keep your room clean, Jim?”
“That's what you said yesterday, Jim.”
Jim ultimately returns to his cell without any clothing.
In One Key Scene, Patients Are Berated And Taunted By The Guards, Force-Fed, And Left To Rot In Empty Cells With No Beds
Another important scene further highlights the lack of care from the Bridgewater staff. In this scene, a doctor force-feeds an elderly patient. A feeding tube is stuck up his nose, and the doctor prepares soup.
While the doctor is pushing liquid through the feeding tube, he's also smoking. The camera focuses as the feeding liquid becomes contaminated with cigarette ash that falls straight from the doctor's cigarette into the food the patient is being fed.
The Film Suggests That Several Patients Were Possibly Murdered
The force-feeding scene is considered one of the most recognizable to be filmed by Wiseman. This is due not only to the striking image of an uncaring doctor allowing ash to fall into a constrained patient's food, but also to an additional scene that Wiseman combined with the images of the force-feeding.
In between shots of the patient being force-fed is another scene showing that same patient's body being prepared for burial. These two scenes combine to paint a morbid picture. In an interview, Wiseman spoke at length about the editing of this scene in particular:
Now that I look at it, I find it too heavy-handed. When you intercut the force-feeding with his funeral, I’m telling you what to think, that he’s treated better in death than in life.