Watching the Camera

Welfare directed by Frederick Wiseman Camerawork by William Brayne Ch. 2, 9 p.m. Tonight

AN OLD WOMAN looks off to the left of the screen staring at something, there's a flash, she blinks and then a shout: "Next." A black man steps into the screen, looks toward something, and somebody out of the camera's range asks him to take off his cap; he's dressed in full army uniform, a chest bedecked with medals. Flash. "Okay, next."

The camera pans around a gray, non-descript room full of chairs. Then cuts to a series of close-ups of old people, mostly women hidden beneath piles of overclothes, their faces jutting out of scarves wrapped around their heads.

"Whas happenin to Indian people?" A man with long black hair--once pigtails--tucked under his shabby raincoat complains to a caseworker that he can't get his welfare check cashed. No I.D. "I'm an Indian people," he slurs. His eyes are bulging out of deep-set sockets, his forehead protrudes and he seems perplexed, yet somehow he's managing the best he can. The social worker tells him there's nothing she can do, and he shouts at her as she walks away: "So what I can do now?"

The beginning of Frederick Wiseman's film Welfare is a lot like the small segments of "live" film most documentaries use. In these moments you figure things out for yourself or not at all. The flashes, for instance, are from a camera taking I.D. pictures for welfare recipients--it all seems pretty obvious. And most documentaries might go on to show a commentator decrying the dehumanizing cattle-herd of the welfare process.

WELFARE is a compilation--almost three hours long--of scenes shot in a New York city welfare center in the winter of 1973. There is no commentary, ever, just bits and pieces of the small world of a large office, an office that is a microcosm of this country's welfare system: not in terms of hard-core issues but in conveying the experience of administering state assistance and of getting it (or trying to.) And the experience is an important subject in itself: because it's difficult, almost impossible, for even the best social worker to make judgments about a person's eligibility, and for a man or woman who needs the money, the entire process is painful and humiliating. At the same time, Welfare is a much larger world, where characters are not simply opaque subjects, but fleshed out individuals. Their own lives become a part of an experience much broader than just joblessness or being on the dole. The camera catches a sallow man from the side, his face deeply pocked. On the other side of his profile a woman with an oval face and a lopeyed gaze explains her situation in a Bronx accent: "My father I don't know since I'm six years old. He's in the army...My mother gave me a little money and told me to go hang myself or commit suicide." Later on in the emergency interview--they're broke and homeless--the woman says the man is married. "You say he's married?" asks the interviewer. "No. She doesn't know what she's talking about." The man lights up a cigarette. And the woman leans over telling him a couple of times "I don't know what I'm sayin. I'm sorry Larry."

AFTER A couple more scenes--one where a thin old woman approaches a desk, peers through her thick glasses at the case worker and says in a wispy little voice, "I'm going to drop dead."--the camera finally focuses on welfare workers behind the scenes. A crewcut man with a thin tapering voice while looking at the same couple's folder, is telling a secretary, "...apparently extenuating social conditions exist." He falters and adds, "could just be a case of lousy conditions."

This last scene is the first hint of Welfare's primary technique, or at least part of it. Another documentary might catch the same two workers discussing a case. But whatever such a film's purpose might be, whether to expose them as muddling bureaucrats or as efficient social workers concerned about their clients, the footage would try to be clean of any hints that the observed were aware of the observers. Documentary, after all, attempts to show glimpses of the truth, to portray people as they are.

The ultra-realist role is generally assigned to the documentary film because the camera is one of the best mechanisms we have for showing what the eye sees. But each frame has its four boundaries too, a filmmaker has to select a particular subject and determine what angle it's seen from, what kind of light it gets. And in the aesthetics of documentary film, there is a certain amount of selection going on when a camera-man decides how to react to the phenomenon of his mechanical eye being eyed back.

So when the social worker discusses the case he seems to be injecting extra verbiage into his speech. "Extenuating social conditions" comes out of his mouth like a cue card line in a mediocre soap opera. And that's part of Wiseman's style. The bias is there, the observers are aware that by their act of watching they are affecting what happens on camera and the distortions this causes aren't edited out; they too are a subject for investigation.

LATER ON in the film a black woman with a triangle of hair plastered down her forehead coming to a point right above the bridge of her nose fights for her friend's welfare eligibility. The case worker wants to stop the interview until the woman calms down. But she can't and the black woman has enough street smarts to know that the camera's presence gives her leverage.

The observer-observed distortion with the case worker seems to be just a personal quirk; perhaps an example of how workers in a welfare department must pretend, in pseudo-scientific terms, that their decisions are based on objective criteria. The case of the black woman is part of a more easily defined phenomenon: people coming into welfare offices to get money when they're broke, at the end of the line, and have to do whatever they can do to get that money, including exploiting a camera filming case workers.

There's a certain amount of desperation in Welfare and there's a certain amount of hype, but it's hard to tell what's what, who's a hardship case and who's cheating the system. The camera is locked into the same claustrophobic office, there aren't even shots looking through windows. When somebody is sent down to the Social Security office at 39th Street, or to J Street for bed and a meal, they're gone, that's it. And this seems to be Wiseman's way of saying that he can never get all of the facts, that seeking the greater truth is beyond the realms of documentary film, and that the closest semblance to the truth is in the particular moment and place and in presenting it as such.

The film seems to revel in metaphors for its basic premise, for the futility of searching out answers, or even questions about welfare. "Any center wants the truth," explains one case worker to a complaining rejected client. "They just don't hand out money." And the truth must come for the welfare applicant, in the form of notarized letters. A guy who looks like Broderick Crawford, only beaten, pulls forms out of several different pockets, "I can show you so much stuff...dis, dat...I can show you names, red numbers...somethin's awful funny here...doesn't meet da eye."

SOMETIMES THE observer-observed phenomenon in Welfare is grotesque, but through the grotesqueness there are glimpses of beauty and humor. Wiseman uses film a lot like Diane Arbus used the still picture. He invites a pose, and his subjects each treat his excellent camera man. William Brayne in a different way, depending it seems on the way they view what the camera means. A middle-aged woman waiting in a seat, a platinum blond with hair teased into a mountainous bundle and skin with wrinkles still dimly perceptible under heavy makeup turns her head to the side and looks up, apparently proud of her looks. The face itself is unattractive, but the pride, and the disdain with which the woman treats the camera seem to open up an entirely different dimension--that one moment of revealed character make the picture or sequence of pictures interesting in themselves, removed even from the welfare office.

The lack of commentary, the fleeting attention to the bizarre, shows a certain too-distant perspective though. A German man talks about how God isn't like the social services, "He doesn't come around and say let's give this guy a couple of hundred bucks. He comes around, sometimes, when he feels like it, and there's nothing you can do about it, not even Jesus Christ can help you." This monologue centers around right and wrong and accountability and it seems to posit welfare workers as mortal gods. But Wiseman never says or does anything more about this mythology of the bureaucracy and it's almost lost.

Probably the worst problem with Wiseman's use of his subjects' self-consciousness comes toward the end of the film, when a bedraggled unshaven man tells the supervisor he's stolen Hershey bars from Korvette's for the past five days to stay alive. The supervisor tells him there's nothing he can do, just take a seat. The whole time, you can't really believe the starving man--"with 22 years of education"--is serious. He acts and talks just like a Woody Allen--mildly hurt, defensive, and wordy. Then there's a close-up of the same guy praying, but out loud and again, it seems, for the camera. "God," he says. "God. O.K. if that's what you want, that's the way it has to be..."