Titicut Follies, 1967

While working with a huge collection of stories with no more than one sentence descriptions, I feel like I have developed an extra sense, one which allows me to instinctually feel if there is more to a story than the card is letting on. Often times I am forced to move on, even if I think a story might have an added layer of interest, simply because there is no way to know if my instincts are right. I am sure there are thousands of stories I have only glanced at (some of which we’ll start to see, once we start voting on stories and digitizing them!), but as soon as I read Titicut Follies as a record title, I knew this was one of the stories I needed to completely track down.

In 1967, yet–undiscovered-talent, Frederick Wiseman spent 29 days filming 40 hours of footage at Massachusetts' Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Before launching his documentary film career, Wiseman was a law professor who brought his students on field trips to the hospital as part of class. The footage he took depicted the harsh conditions of both the building and the treatment of the patients. When he released Titicut Follies, it shocked audiences and got rave reviews at the New York Film Festival. However, before it got much exposure, Lt. Governor Elliot Richardson led an effort to ban the movie from being released. Even though Wiseman had secured permission from everyone involved with and portrayed in the film, they claimed that it was still an invasion of privacy because the patients were not of sound mind and so could not actually give that permission.

When the ban passed it made history: Titicut Follies became the first film to be banned for reasons other than obscenity, pitting the Right to Privacy against the Freedom of Expression. Local news covered this story in 1967, records of which we have in our collections, but that’s not the whole story.

[caption id="attachment640" align="alignright" width="300"]<a href="http://bostonlocaltv.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/800px-FrederickWiseman.jpg">Frederick
Wiseman Frederick Wiseman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons[/caption]

After his appeals to the State and Federal Supreme Courts were denied in 1969, Wiseman always planned to fight the ban, but waited for the time to do it most effectively. In 1987 he took his chance, after 5 Bridgewater inmates committed suicide, which, it was reported, could have been prevented has the institution provided better care, which a wider release of the film probably would have promoted. Finally in 1989, it was ruled that the film could be released as long as the faces were blurred. Wiseman appealed this stipulation, not based (at least legally) on any censorship case, but rather on the fact that since the documentary was shot on film rather than video, attempts to blur faces would ruin the quality of the film, making it unviewable.

As no inmates or family members had pressed claims since 1967, Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge Andre Gill Meyer lifted the ban completely in 1991. The film opened the 1991 Boston Film Festival. In 1993, PBS broadcasted the documentary on television.

While the film has always been a topic of discussion in documentary film studies, used as an example of the issues between the rights to expression and privacy, now the focus has shifted, and it has started to be studied as a piece of filmmaking, especially as a study of Wiseman’s early technique.


Koehler, Robert. “’Titicut Follies’ Arrives, 24 Years After the Fact: Film: the 1967 documentary was banned until this year in a dispute of freedom of expression versus privacy rights of mental patients.” The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA). October 14, 1991. http://articles.latimes.com/1991-10-14/entertainment/ca-574_1_titicut-follies

“Top 10 Banned Films of the 20th Century.” Alternative Reel. Accessed Jan. 14, 2012. http://www.alternativereel.com/includes/top-ten/display_review.php?id=00091

Price, Michael. “Titicut Follies.” Sense of Cinema. Accessed Jan. 14, 2012. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/cteq/titicut/