The filmmaker offers a three-hour cross section of the multicultural neighborhood
A scene from Frederick Wiseman’s atmospheric documentary film “In Jackson Heights.” PHOTO: ZIPPORAH FILMS
Unlike many in the documentary field, Frederick Wiseman never makes it a point to be topical.
Yet, “In Jackson Heights,” the 42nd feature from the filmmaker, couldn’t be timelier. The film, which opens Wednesday at Film Forum, is immersed in the experiences and struggles of the many immigrant communities that populate the Queens neighborhood.
“You see the issues,” said Mr. Wiseman, whose film arrives as immigration has flared as a controversial topic in the GOP presidential debates. “Forty percent of the film is in Spanish. A lot of the people you see in the film are undocumented immigrants.”
When he began shooting in spring 2014, Mr. Wiseman, who is 85 years old, wasn’t thinking about the election—or anything else. He was just looking for a good subject to film, and had taken to the neighborhood after a friend gave him an intensive tour.
“It’s probably the most culturally diverse community in the world,” he said. “They speak 167 languages. It’s a bit more like I imagine the Lower East Side was at the turn of the 20th century.”
The filmmaker tracks a cross-section of those cultures over the course of three hours. The camera roves through the streets, venturing into bodegas whose owners fret about gentrification or following a Halal butcher as he slaughters and prepares chickens for market. There is no narrator or voice-over, just a collage of immersive scenes that are meticulously edited with a larger narrative in mind.
“Wiseman’s purist approach to documentary was radical in 1967 and remains just as radical today,” said Thom Powers, artistic director of DOC NYC, the city’s annual documentary showcase, which will present Mr. Wiseman with a lifetime-achievement award this month.
The film spends much time in places such as Make the Road New York, a nonprofit organization that supports Latino and working-class communities, where fledgling New Yorkers learn how to adapt to a new way of life.
”In Jackson Heights” is the 42nd feature by filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, now 85 years old. PHOTO: JOHN EWING
There, aspiring cabdrivers from Africa and South Asia take notes from a spirited instructor, who uses comical memory tricks to help them for a coming exam. In another session, Hispanic immigrants share their stories, including one woman’s harrowing account of her daughter’s Mexican border crossing.
As with many of Mr. Wiseman’s films that expose the nuts and bolts of American institutions—student life in a Philadelphia high school in 1968’s “High School” or the New York welfare system in 1975’s “Welfare”—his great subject is the civic discourse that flourishes in a democracy.
“You shoot what you see that looks interesting,” said Mr. Wiseman, who filmed “In Jackson Heights” in nine weeks, working with a crew of two over long days. “I’m not interested in making propaganda or didactic films.”
Though he did some advance preparation, the filmmaker connected with most of his subjects and situations by walking around and talking to people. “They probably wondered, ‘This guy with big ears, what does he want to hang around here for?’ ” he said.
That approach has guided the Boston native through five decades of filmmaking, and established him as a pioneer of what has been called cinéma vérité, a label the filmmaker has disparaged as “a pompous French term.”
A scene from Frederick Wiseman’s film “In Jackson Heights,” which paints an impressionistic portrait of one of New York City’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods. PHOTO: ZIPPORAH FILMS
“They aren’t journalistic,” he said of his films. “It’s not who, what, when, where, why. They’re novelistic. They’re indirect. I’m trying to provide you with enough information…so you feel you’re there and you can make up your own mind what you’re seeing and hearing.”
And the narratives have inspired other art forms. His earliest film, the now-legendary 1967 “Titicut Follies,” is being made into a ballet by Minneapolis choreographer James Sewell.
Turning scenes from the graphic and disturbing documentary about inmates at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Mass., into poetic movement may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, said Mr. Wiseman. “The dances are based on ideas and emotions,” he said, describing two elements abundant across his films.
A subject of “In Jackson Heights,” New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm, discovered as much when he saw the completed film.
One scene homes in on a hectic day for his staff members, who navigate phone calls from agitated constituents, some angry about a new local homeless shelter. The camera keys on a staffer who patiently reasons with an aggressive caller, striving to control her exasperation.
Later in the film, the councilman, who is openly gay, commands his own float during the Queens Pride parade, cheered as he strides in a rainbow-colored boa. “It’s the diversity that really drew me to [Jackson Heights], and the freedom to be myself.”
That spirit applies even to tourists. Wandering the street one day, Mr. Wiseman overheard a group of women praying aloud with deep Southern accents. “They were up on a mission to sweep the streets, to clean up Jackson Heights,” he said. The women, part of an Alabama church group, are approached by a passerby who asks for a prayer and shares in a warm embrace.
“That was pure chance,” the filmmaker said.
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