In Jackson Heights by Frederick Wiseman (USA, 2015, 190 min.). With his 40th documentary film, Frederick Wiseman plunges us into the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse communities in the world. Boasting 167 spoken languages, a vibrant queer and transgender community, a proactive local government and some of the best restaurants in New York City, Jackson Heights is not a utopia so much as an ongoing social project achieved through the activism and collaboration of its residents. As Manhattanites look to relocate to the affordable outer boroughs, the people of Jackson Heights congregate in community centers and beauty salons to campaign against gentrification. This film gives the viewer a privileged seat at these discussions.
True to form, Wiseman has not forced the depicted events into a narrative arc or imbued them with false sentimentality. Rather, he lets the footage be what it is: unglamorous, exuberant, awkward or mundane, but always meaningful in its own right. But we shouldn’t mistake this absence of traditional narrative for a lack of intention and authorship. The director sculpts the footage with a deft hand, leaving only the subtlest of fingerprints; and because of their subtlety, these fingerprints are rewarding to find. There are times when we can sense Wiseman’s deliberate choice to let an uncomfortable scene run long, or to fix his camera’s stern gaze on a subject for such a long time it begins to feel incredulous. These longer scenes are punctuated by fleeting images that layer color and texture onto the lean footage: storefronts, a parade, a soup kitchen, a nightclub.
Such personal choices on the part of the filmmaker make it clear that in addition to being a documentarian, Wiseman is an auteur. His film is not only a document preserving a politically charged moment in a complex community: it is also a work of art, crafted by a master.
Manager and Assistant Programmer of Film and Video
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston