Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s latest creation is an exciting crawl through one of the nation’s thickest melting pots. (Courtesy Photo)
by Daniel Wirtheim
A commuter rail rattles across the skyline of a bustling neighborhood as the camera jumps closer, then finally to streets teeming with life and the sound of 167 different languages spoken all at the same time.
From the streets to the offices of its city council representative, Frederick Wiseman’s 2015 documentary film In Jackson Heights is a meditation on one of the nation’s thickest melting pots, the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, NY.
Wiseman, who’s directed 40 documentaries, kicks the armchair anthropologist from his La-Z-Boy and hits the streets to let this neighborhood speak its own truth.
Within an overwhelming three hours and 10 minutes of run time, In Jackson Heights never establishes an emotional theme. Instead Wiseman edits scenes of life with the urge to contradict in such a way that carries this behemoth of a documentary at a brisk and exciting pace.
Street signs, produce vendors and storefronts flash by the screen as the camera swings from one shop to the next like a wild-eyed ape of the urban jungle harboring an insatiable appetite for stories.
A woman stops a group of volunteers from Alabama who are picking up trash to ask them to pray for a loved one. Customers at a Laundromat sit down for a music show. And the general impression is that this is all happening yards away from a street vendor or Indian beauty parlor. Wiseman also spends a substantial part of the film behind closed doors: in the meeting of an LGBT advocacy group, a nightclub, synagogue, and a city council office. This largely immigrant neighborhood is connected through these segmented communities, all seemingly committed to upholding diversity.
In Jackson Heights plays at A/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem through Thursday.
There are a few escapades with Daniel Dromm, the openly gay NYC council member whose district includes Jackson Heights. The film follows Dromm as he discusses a possible redistricting and prepares for the Queens Pride Parade and Festival, which is held annually in the neighborhood.
The most disparaging elements are a series of protests, which Wiseman tells through the recurring character of a transgender Latina woman.
Perhaps the most poignant narrative of the film is a collection of scenes in which a group of small-business owners come to comprehend the gentrification that has made its way from Manhattan to Jackson Heights. But the film does not hold onto one narrative, it simply meditates in the melting pot.
Cinematographer and longtime Wiseman-collaborator John Davey is no novice when it comes to setting up a pleasingly composed establishing shot, but he thrives on faces and capturing emotional reactions. This tendency, to focus on the eyes, gives In Jackson Heights an incredibly clean and emotive look.
When a person speaks, as in one scene in which a woman stands up before a group to tell the riveting tale of her daughters crossing the US-Mexican border, stoic reactions are the focal point. The diversity of the faces is mesmerizing as well — until it becomes tiring.
Beyond the two-and-a-half hour mark, In Jackson Heights can become a tedious, if not excruciating film to watch. The discomfort begins shortly after the aforementioned meeting of the business owners. Enough tension is released here for the credits but Wiseman cannot quit adding characters, adding story.
Like one scene where the focus is on a group of holocaust survivors, Wiseman seems to reinforce the sad truism that life goes on, even beyond the artificial construct of the film.
It is excruciating, but mostly genius, film. And not unlike Yasujiro Ozu’s meditation on the city — Tokyo Story — Wiseman bookends the excitement with another passing train. And In Jackson Heights leaves an audience with the feeling that they’ve just taken one deep meditation session on a city of immigrants.