State Legislature

Renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman explores the decision-making process at the heart of democracy in STATE LEGISLATURE, premiering Wednesday, June 13, on PBS

The Rocky Mountain state of Idaho is governed by "citizen" legislators - not career politicians. These lawmakers are, for the most part, farmers and ranchers, businessmen and women, lawyers, doctors, sales people, loggers, and teachers elected for two-year terms. During the 2004 Idaho state legislative session, these citizen legislators became an integral part of STATE LEGISLATURE, the latest documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. In his ongoing project to explore contemporary American life as expressed in institutions, Wiseman turned his camera on the legislature to illustrate the way the democratic decision-making process works. In his trademark style, nothing is staged. Wiseman captures the lawmakers as they debate and discuss the concerns of the electorate, on issues that range from violence in schools, mad cow disease and video voyeurism to illegal immigration, secondhand smoke and the deregulation of telephone rates. 

In Le Monde, Thomas Sotinel called STATE LEGISLATURE "(an) ode to representative democracy." Variety's review stated, "What emerges is the thoroughness with which the system treats even the most contentious of issues and eccentric of constituents." After a showing at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival, German film critic Ekkehard Knörer wrote, "One stands to gain nothing less than mind-boggling insights into the machinery of American democracy." 

STATE LEGISLATURE premieres Wednesday, June 13, at 9pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). The film is presented nationwide on PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York, which has been the national presenter of Frederick Wiseman's films throughout his career. 

Wiseman, a three-time Emmy Award-winning director, has 34 documentary films to his credit, from the controversial Titicut Follies (1967) and High School (1968) to Near Death (1989), Public Housing (1997) and Domestic Violence (2001). "This film shows the day-to-day aspects of the legislative process, the goal of which is the creation of the laws that govern the civic life depicted in my other films," said Wiseman. "Unlike a textbook description in a political science course of how a bill becomes a law, a film of a legislature can convey in a unique way the actuality of the legislative process, that is, how decisions are made and power is exercised in a democratic society and the constraints and limitations on the application of that power." 

While it may not be easy or smooth, the legislative process is the engine that drives American democracy. And in each of America's 50 state capitals, the legislature is the basic democratic institution, where elected representatives make the laws that define the rights and obligations of citizenship. From determining how to fund government agencies to setting the policies of all the services the state provides - from police to prisons to schools - the state legislature defines, regulates and gives shape to civic life. 

Present for the entire 2004 session of the Idaho legislature, Wiseman had access to all aspects of the legislative work. The result is a portrait of a complex body that serves essential routine functions in the day-to-day operations of a state and, at the same time, plays a key symbolic role in the American way of life. Throughout the course of the film, the camera roams the halls and conference rooms of the Idaho state legislature. The film observes legislators discussing bills before they are formally introduced; the committee hearings where the testimony of witnesses and lobbyists for and against the legislation is heard; the debate among legislators to determine whether the bill should go to the floor of the House or Senate for final consideration; and the final debate and vote. The film also captures informal discussions with lobbyists and citizens, as well as press conferences and events held in the state house rotunda. Sequences illustrate the role of lobbyists, the power of committee chairmen, the use of procedural maneuvers to advance or retard legislation, and debates in committee - some revealing the mundane, even arcane, aspects of the process, and others eliciting remarkably eloquent oratory. 

Among the issues discussed by the legislators during the course of the session are: violence in schools; electronic waste; utility costs; teacher salaries; a sex offenders registry; the relationship between church and state, welfare appropriations; liability of companies marketing unhealthy foods; educational policy; mental illness; crime victims' rights; contractor licensing; and public transportation policy. 

"For me, the drama lies in the commonness of the issues, in the ordinariness of the people called on to resolve them, and the seriousness with which they accept the responsibility for participating in decisions that affect all aspects of our lives," said Wiseman. "STATE LEGISLATURE is, in my view, a reflection of contemporary American life and both an illustration of and metaphor for the democratic process." 

Funding for STATE LEGISLATURE was provided by PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Independent Television Service, National Endowment for the Arts, and The LEF Foundation and the Ford Foundation. 

Director and Editor: Frederick Wiseman
Photography: John Davey.
Sound: Frederick Wiseman  

STATE LEGISLATURE is a co-production for PBS of Idaho Film, Inc. and Thirteen/WNET, in association with the Independent Television Service. Executive producer for Thirteen/WNET is Stephen Segaller. Executive producer for ITVS is Sally Jo Fifer. Tamara E. Robinson is vice president and director of programming for Thirteen/WNET. STATE LEGISLATURE is a Zipporah Films, Inc. release. 

About Thirteen/WNET 
Thirteen/WNET New York is one of the key program providers for public television, bringing such acclaimed series as Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, Charlie Rose, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Wide Angle, Secrets of the Dead, NOW With David Brancaccio, and Cyberchase - as well as the work of Bill Moyers - to audiences nationwide. As the flagship public broadcaster in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut metro area, Thirteen reaches millions of viewers each week, airing the best of American public television along with its own local productions such as The Ethnic Heritage Specials, The Thirteen Walking Tours, New York Voices, and Reel New York. Thirteen extends the impact of its television productions through educational and community outreach projects - including the Celebration of Teaching and Learning - as well as Web sites and other digital media platforms. More information can be found at: 

About ITVS 
The Independent Television Service (ITVS) funds and presents award-winning documentaries and dramas on public television, innovative new media projects on the Web and the Emmy Award-winning weekly series Independent Lens on Tuesday nights at 10pm on PBS. ITVS is a miracle of public policy created by media activists, citizens and politicians seeking to foster plurality and diversity in public television. ITVS was established by a historic mandate of Congress to champion independently produced programs that take creative risks, spark public dialogue and serve underserved audiences. Since its inception in 1991, ITVS programs have revitalized the relationship between the public and public television, bringing TV audiences face-to-face with the lives and concerns of their fellow Americans. More information about ITVS can be obtained by visiting ITVS is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. More information about ITVS and ITVS International initiatives is available online at 

CONTACT: Randall Cole 415.356.8383 x254

Posted on May 25, 2007