February 23, 2018
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Controversial Belfast documentary returns to local screens

Erik Madigan Heck | BDN
Erik Madigan Heck | BDN
Frederick Wiseman. Photo by Erik Madigan Heck.
By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff

When it came out in 1999, renowned filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s documentary “Belfast, Maine,” was greeted with great anticipation by the residents of Belfast, eager to see how their quiet seaside town would be portrayed in the film.

Wiseman, who for decades has resided in the summers in nearby Northport, spent several years in the late 1990s filming everything from workers in the Stinson sardine cannery to students in Belfast Area High School. He ended up with more than 100 hours of footage that he eventually cut into a four-hour film.

Some were thrilled by Wiseman’s unvarnished look into the lives of everyday citizens of Belfast, but many were not. In fact, a number of residents were pretty angry about it, after walking out of the film’s premiere at the Colonial Theatre in downtown Belfast back in 1999.

“I remember walking out of the theater and thinking that it was a pretty amazing film — just so rich and varied,” Jay Davis, a longtime journalist and Belfast resident, said. “And then a guy who was on the city council at the time who also saw it was furious. There was a lot of what they felt was bad stuff about Belfast in the film, and they believed this was just a beautiful place. And it is, of course, but there’s more to it than that.”

Some loved Wiseman’s methodical, meditative look at the daily lives of the citizens of Belfast, hailing from all walks of life and living conditions. Some, however, were horrified by some of the more graphic elements of the film — shots of people living in abject poverty, uncomfortable scenes of townsfolk struggling with a variety of health problems, an emphasis on the often hardscrabble lives of working class people.

Those that never got to see “Belfast, Maine” when it was screened in theaters or on PBS — like much of Wiseman’s work, it is not available on any streaming or online rental services and can only be ordered on DVD from Wiseman’s website — will finally have a chance to see it next week. The Colonial Theatre will show the film at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 1, followed by a discussion with Wiseman himself.

Over the course of the movie’s 240 minute-plus running time, viewers are exposed to a diverse array of the goings-on in Belfast, scenes that transition into one another in an unhurried, meditative way. Kids skateboarding at the town’s then newly built skate park. Lobstermen and tugboat operators in the harbor. A high school teacher giving a stirring lecture on “Moby Dick.” Images of fall foliage and brilliant sunsets, underscoring the scenic beauty of the town.

Juxtapose those passages of idyllic small-town life with the uglier realities of rural poverty, and the daily difficulties of an aging, often physically unhealthy segment of the population, suffering from abuse, alcoholism, obesity and other ailments. There are long passages in the film of people at work, often in factories, showcasing the mundanity of work life for many Belfast residents of that era.

It’s those passages that upset some townsfolk, upon their first viewing.

“I think people were kind of expecting more of a sanitized, Chamber of Commerce puff piece, and to not show the bad stuff,” Mike Hurley, a Belfast city councilor who owns the Colonial Theatre, said. “But that’s not the point. That’s not what a film like this is about.”

“My brother-in-law lives in New York, and he saw it on PBS and called me and said, ‘How does it feel now that nobody’s ever gonna come to Belfast again?’” Davis said. “Of course, he was joking, but that was the reaction it caused in some people.”

Wiseman, 87, was awarded an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2016 for his more than 40 films made over five decades. Over the years, he’s also been awarded three Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. He’s known for his “fly on the wall” style of filming, with less emphasis on narrative structure and no narration, and for the length of his films, most of which clock in at three hours or over.

Each film approaches a different subject, be they the teachers and students of a 1960s high school classroom (“High School,” 1968), people applying for and living off welfare (“Welfare,” 1975), or the day to day lives of dancers at the American Ballet Theatre (“Ballet,” 1995). His newest film, “Ex Libris: New York Public Library,” comes out this fall.

“Belfast, Maine” is acclaimed by many film critics as one of Wiseman’s finest works. In an interview not long after the film was released, Wiseman didn’t say the film was supposed to shed any light on small town life in America or any other specific, greater theme. It was just supposed to document Belfast.

For Belfast residents and those familiar with the town, it’s a time capsule of a town that has changed irrevocably. Many of the businesses showcased in the film — Embee Cleaners, Weaver’s Bakery, the Stinson plant — are long gone. Today, art galleries, restaurants and boutiques abound in downtown Belfast but back then, they were nowhere to be found.

“I think it’s wonderful that it was made at a time when Belfast was in transition, between the old chicken plant leaving and MBNA coming in,” Davis said. “I think the core of Belfast remains — there’s a core of people here that give the town its character. But you have to think, if Fred made the movie today, would it be the same? And the answer is no. The community has changed in major ways.”

Tuesday’s screening will be a chance to compare and contrast the Belfast of then to the Belfast of now — as well as a chance to spot people they might recognize.

“You know, we may not like some aspects of the film, and feel some things should have been included and others not, but really, what an amazing thing to have one of the world’s great documentarians make a four hour movie about your town,” Hurley said. “How lucky are we?”

“Belfast, Maine” will be screened at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 1 at the Colonial Theatre in Belfast. To reserve tickets, call 338-1930. For more information on all of Wiseman’s films, visit zipporah.com.

 


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