Titicut Follies is a documentary released in 1967 that exposed the horrific and cruel treatment of prisoners in 1966 at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
It was produced, written, and directed by Frederick Wiseman, and filmed by John Marshall. The film was the subject of a great deal of controversy, and after it was screened at the 1967 New York Film Festival and a few other places, it was banned from being shown to the general public until 1991. The New England Historical Society explains:
Titicut Follies won awards at European film festivals before it was scheduled to premiere at the New York Film Festival. But the administration of Gov. John Volpe sought an injunction preventing its release. The Massachusetts Superior Court banned the film on the grounds that it violated patients' privacy.
No court has banned any other American film for reasons other than obscenity or national security.
The Massachusetts court ordered all copies of Titicut Follies destroyed. Wiseman appealed the decision. In 1969 the court allowed certain people — like doctors, lawyers, social workers and teachers –to see it for educational purposes. The general public couldn't see it until 1991, when another Massachusetts judge concluded that it didn't violate the inmates' privacy. The reason? Because they had all died.
I also found a great review of the film by Roger Ebert, who was able to see the film in 1968. Here's an excerpt:
"Titicut Follies" is one of the most despairing documentaries I have ever seen; more immediate than fiction because these people are real; more savage than satire because it seems to be neutral.
We are literally taken into a madhouse. Inmates of varying degrees of mental illness are treated with the same casual inhumanity.
Massachusetts legislators have tried for two years to suppress Wiseman's film. They say it invades the privacy of the inmates, and perhaps they have a point. It is hard to imagine more humiliating and pathetic scenes, and perhaps they should not be shown for profit or offered to the public.
But perhaps they should, even though "Titicut Follies" will dismay and disgust many of those who see it. Few of us have the slightest idea of conditions in the nation's mental prison-hospitals.
The film is not of high technical quality. It was shot with available sound and light under difficult conditions. But its message penetrates all the same. One "paranoid" patient, told he has shown no improvement, argues that the prison is making him worse, not better. This sounds like the simple truth, and the film leaves us with the impression that institutions like Bridgewater are causing mental illness, not curing it.
Creepy Catalog describes the film as one that will "chill you and make you feel ashamed of being a human being." They're not wrong. I'm only about a quarter through the film, and I am finding it incredibly disturbing. I also have the distinct feeling as I'm watching that I shouldn't be—it really does feel incredibly invasive—so I'm not sure I'll finish it. At the same time, I'm appreciative that this incredibly difficult-to-watch film helped reveal the absolutely disgusting treatment of humans occurring behind those walls.