Frederick Wiseman's documentaries are beautifully patient creations. While lengthy, one could never call them slow. Each listens carefully to the patterns of communication and the sounds of an environment in motion, usually focusing on a city institution or municipal organism. The narrative may seem tied to social machinations, but it's the human experiences and confessions within that add up to something collectively profound.
With so much vitriol and hatred raging around the world, pundits often point to community building as the best way to combat terrorism and racism. Well, if that's the case, the director's latest In Jackson Heights is the most important American film of the year.
Wiseman examines the radically diverse community in Queens, New York, with the patient eye of a surveyor. The camera documents multiple instances of community building at the micro-level, with these personal conversations, debates and desperate calls for action alluding to the greater social concerns consistently simplified on the daily news cycle.
Early in the film, Daniel Dromm, Councilmember for the 25th district, extols Jackson Heights' diversity during a speech at the local Jewish center by naming how many languages are spoken in the community. It's a solid anchoring point, but thankfully Wiseman doesn't structure his entire film around a sound bite. Sure, In Jackson Heights wants to celebrate the many ethnicities and perspectives at work, but it does so not through statistics but by listening intently to the residents themselves.
Stories seem to resonate from every image, even the ones passing by in an instant. Curbside vendors sell street food, grocers display fruits and vegetables and pop-up musical performances mix in with the sounds of an approaching elevated train or police siren. At night, the film drifts into neon-hued nightclubs and back out onto the streets. Things are never really quiet, but often serene, in harmony.
The core of In Jackson Heights comes from comprehensive sequences of discourse. Latino small business owners attempt to circumvent the ebbs and flows of mass gentrification by strategizing with employees of a nonprofit organization bent on protecting worker's rights. Rent hikes and economic malfeasance threaten to turn the community into a haven for corporations.
Transgender activists strategize and protest intolerance from a local restaurant, the latest example of a seemingly ongoing battle for LGBT rights dating back to the murder of Julio Rivera in 1990.
Somewhat less exciting but equally important is a protracted scene with local politicians discussing the "brain drain" that has occurred due to redistricting. Here we get to see the domino effect of decision making and how its consequences can cascade from oldest to youngest.
Like all of Wiseman's work, the film builds upon moments big and small to get at something greater. By the end, it's clear that In Jackson Heights is not a travelogue, but a mosaic of interpersonal communication concerned with the reconstruction of community values. Surprisingly, technology has very little presence in the film, and its absence is welcome.
Despite a growing concern that Jackson Heights might be on the verge of losing its identity thanks to corrupt real estate moguls, the residents themselves show very little fear of their uncertain future. Nor does Wiseman, whose mastery of editing can be seen in the poetic and sublime ways he mixes tones and perspectives.
Even more importantly, In Jackson Heights proclaims that tolerance, respect and understanding are achieved through the proliferation of shared information. Nearly every scene hinges on this idea. Near the end Wiseman films a class of prospective taxi drivers studying for the city exam. Their teacher provides a handy anecdote about directions, trying in his own way to bridge the gap between cultures and perspectives through humor.
Places of worship are also part of In Jackson Heights, which opens Friday, Dec. 11, at the Digital Gym in North Park, but usually double as meeting places for citizens of other faiths, sexual identities and political affiliations. While most films would highlight this overlap as a contradiction, Wiseman patiently showcases it as the new normal.