Documentary maestro Frederick Wiseman has been making films since his introduction to the genre in 1967 with the controversial “Titicut Follies.” Since then, he has made 40+ documentaries covering a vast array of subjects, primarily institutions. His latest is also about another institution, a living and breathing on that has an array of peoples and cultures that takes us to the Queens neighborhood “In Jackson Heights.”
Director Wiseman’s films are an acquired taste. For nearly 50 years, his cinema verite film style has brought us to “Central Park (1990),” “Belfast, Maine (1999),” “Boxing Gym (2010)” “At Berkeley (2013)” and “National Gallery (2014),” plus many more people and places. These works eschew traditional narration and talking head interviews and let the views of the places unfold and allow us to be there, vicariously, through Wiseman’s expert eye. Once you catch the Frederick Wiseman bug and acquire that elusive taste, you become a devotee to his unique style and perspectives of his subjects.
“In Jackson Heights” is, of course, in Wiseman’s tradition of fly-on-the-wall camera work that allows the observer to feel a part of this vibrant, endangered community. The diversity of people, culture and language (some 167 languages and dialects) is too long a list to discuss here. Just to give an small idea of life in this melting pot in the heart of Queens, New York, Wiseman’s camera takes us to, in no particular order, a Muslim mosque; a Jewish community center; Gay Pride Parade headquarters; city council chambers; a Laundromat replete with street musicians; a local supermarket; an Indian beauty salon that uses dental floss to get rid of unsightly facial hair; a halal butcher shop; a florist shop; an elder center; a Catholic articles shop; a belly dancing class. These are just the tip of Wiseman’s visually compelling iceberg.
But, Wiseman’s Jackson Heights is not just about a living and breathing entity that is growing and becoming even more diverse. It is a community whose future existence is endangered by big corporations and the double edged sword of gentrification. Sure, it is good for the community when its economy is boosted by the arrival of brand stores, like Starbuck’s or CVS. But, once the attraction to the neighbor expands, developers move in and buy up the very properties and businesses that make Jackson Heights a living being, forcing the inhabitants out.
While Wiseman presents us with the neighborhood and the dangers it faces – evictions by local real-estate owners that jump at the chance to make big bucks selling their properties to the deep pocketed corporations and speculators. This begs the question that the filmmaker asks: What happens to the denizens of Jackson Heights (or any other applicable community) that have to leave their homes? Where do they go and what can they do?
Wiseman, as usual, gives his subjects a balanced point of view and, especially with “In Jackson Heights,” makes us a part of the place and its people. I give it an A-.
Queens, New York is home to one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country with 167 languages spoken. For his 41st film, Frederick Wiseman explores diversity from every angle "In Jackson Heights."
A makeshift Muslim mosque, a trombonist busker and a gay Latino gathering to discuss the community's historic LGBT parade are some of the film's opening scenes. Wiseman appears to travel the length of Roosevelt Boulevard, stopping to illuminate its various cultures along the way. There's a male Jewish group discussing the pros and cons of moving their community center to Kew Gardens, a group of Columbian soccer fans gathered to watch a game on the sidewalk, a Mexican family business owner bemoaning the gentrification that is putting people like him out of business and homogenizing the neighborhood he helped build. Councilman Daniel Dromm is nowhere to be seen in his office where women on phone banks deal with annoyed citizens (he'll appear later in the climactic parade he founded). You may want to look away when the filmmaker steps into a halal poultry processing shop or observes an old man's pedicure, but his subsequent trip to an Indian eyebrow waxing shop is a marvel. A couple making music in a launderette build suspense with bowls and utensils.
These mini-movies are punctuated with cutaways of street signs and streetscapes, crosswalks and cross streets, orienting us. Gradually, a bigger picture forms, one of a lively place full of music, food and goods, but also problems to be solved. The 1990 hate crime killing of Julio Rivera, a Latino gay man, still reverberates. A new Gap store is displacing a mini-mall housing over 50 small businesses. Homeowners are still being suckered into misleading mortgages, not expecting rate hikes that will force many out. Wiseman shows how this community is trying to do something about these issues, choosing his subjects well, finding eloquent explanations of complex problems in unlikely places. He also lets his camera run for a few who are so long-winded, their tragic tales take on elements of comedy. He takes a component of his organizational films like the recent "At Berkeley," taking us into the most mundane sounding of meetings only to leave us educated in unexpected ways, his impish humor coming through in his editing choices.
Wiseman, a national treasure, has never been nominated for an Academy award for any of his sublimely immersive documentaries. It's time he got his due. "In Jackson Heights" is a stellar example of this octogenarian's profound style. How many filmmakers are capable of making documentaries that routine run over three hours and mesmerize throughout?
Wiseman's "In Jackson Heights" is being screened at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts from 11/18 through 11/29.
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