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Frederick Wiseman’s films rely on subtlety. Long and expansive explorations, they allow the viewer time to take in the minute details that make up conversations, connections, and actions. The 86-year-old director has spent most of his career filming the inner workings of institutions, and does so with the painstaking thoroughness of an archivist or an archaeologist. The small preposition in the title of Wiseman’s forty-third film, In Jackson Heights, is crucial. Without it, the film would be about the multi-ethnic area of Queens, New York, but what Wiseman is saying here is, “Come with me as we go inside”. Faces, surfaces, stories, past tragedies, present inequalities, and future uncertainties are excavated by this poet-archaeologist and in them is revealed the beauty of our shared humanity. A broken baby Jesus in the local Articulos Católicos shop is cradled like a real baby before being whisked off to be fixed, Hindu gods radiate technicolour splendour during a Hare Krishna service, and fruits and vegetables in the local markets are as much symbols of a home left behind as they are sustenance for a new life in America. Even eyebrow threading takes on a meditative quality while women perform the quick movements like dancers. Nothing is too mundane or banal for Wiseman’s eye.
In Jackson Heights takes us inside the innermost sanctums of mosques, Catholic cathedrals, Holocaust survivor services, halal butchers (replete with the throat-cutting of live chickens), council offices (with saintly telephone receptionists taking angry calls), meetings of gay seniors, immigrant support groups, taxi driver training classes (where people who have never seen a map are taught to read one), transsexual support groups and a strange musical performance involving the earnest tickling of china bowls in a Laundromat – and dozens more.
Underneath what seems like a loose structuring of these disparate strands of society lies an absolute control of the material. The film is bookended by wide shots of Jackson Heights: it opens with a bright tableau of the area on a spring day and closes at night on the fourth of July with fireworks going off in the background over Manhattan. Fireworks that, like Manhattan itself, are both beyond the reach of the protagonists and yet within their view. Individual tales of immigrant struggle, pain, loss, and frustration play out within the larger context of community. The personal and the political are never far from each other, and Wiseman doesn’t lose sight of the constant threat just under the surface of these people’s lives: gentrification. Nor does he bash us over the head with his ‘message’. It’s there for those who take the time to look.
A GAP store has moved into the area offering 70% discounts. It has swallowed up eight small businesses. A local mall with fifty family-owned shops looks like it will be the next casualty of property developers. One Colombian gentleman who has had his business there for twenty-two years complains that he and others like him have “no political representation”. He goes on to list the people who should be out there fighting his case, such as state senators and representatives, but they are all in jail or involved in scandals. Another restaurant owner tells a couple of young activists that his staff is made up of older women who have been working for twenty years as waitresses, “How can I tell them they have no work when the time comes? These new corporations, all they want are bonitas,” he says. What Wiseman does with such a light and sympathetic touch is show us what is at stake when individuals lose out to corporate money and interests. The loss is so much more than financial. They are forced to give up their sense of belonging, shared histories, and hope—the very qualities that make us human. When big businesses move in, the organically forged common ground between sex workers, Bangladeshi vegetable sellers, lonely senior citizens, Latino beauticians, and the seemingly endless variety of human beings who meet in the cramped public spaces of large cities are lost forever. Every scene in the film is played out in a public or a shared space, and the importance of these environments is paramount. Towards the beginning of the film, members of a group of gay seniors are discussing whether they feel comfortable meeting in the community centre of a synagogue. Dialogue ensues about space and belonging, which are at the heart of this film. It is as much about the surface of where a journey begins as it is about the soul of where we find ourselves.
In Jackson Heights pulses with life and complexity. We hear tragic and terrible stories like the Mexican woman who stands up in front of an immigration support group to tell the tale of her daughter being lost in the desert for fifteen days as she tried to cross the border into the United States. The woman often stops and searches for the right word, allowing us to see how all our stories are constantly searching for the right words and the right ears to hear them. There is the older man who worked for a cleaning company and had recently been fired for no reason, who confesses to feeling hopeless but tells his story with such dignity that one does not want to believe in his hopelessness. There are tales of discrimination and a repeated trope of a child killed by a garbage truck, and yet for all the sadness within the individual struggles, there is comfort to be had in community—albeit a community on the verge of being eaten up by developers.
The other strand woven deftly into the fabric of film are the stories of Julio Rivera and Edgar Garzon, two gay men beaten to death by skinhead sympathizers in Jackson Heights. Rivera was killed twenty-six years ago and Garzon eleven years later. Their memories are very much alive in this film as we see the planning of the Gay Pride Parade and the meetings of gay and transgender inhabitants of the neighbourhood discussing their enduring challenges. The Jackson Heights councilman, Daniel Dromm, is a colourful presence throughout the film, walking in the Pride Parade in his suit and tie and a rainbow feather boa.
True to Wiseman’s style, there is no narration or voice-over, no talking head interviews, no questions from behind the camera, artificial lights or trickiness. Wiseman carefully constructs the feeling of time passing—there are three nights and three days over the 190 minutes—by editing his material to resemble lives unfolding. He has famously written bout his editing process: “Cutting a documentary is like putting together a ‘reality dream,’ because the events in it are all true, except really they have no meaning except insofar as you impose a form on them, and that form is imposed in large measure, of course, in the editing.” Although most people today consider Wiseman a spokesperson for the cinema vérité crowd, he didn’t like this term, preferring to call his films “reality fictions”.
In Jackson Heights is an epic poem in which the heroic deeds have been replaced by the normal lives of people who sometimes finds themselves in heroic or tragic situations. It is a reminder that to be human is not always to be greedy, ugly and shallow, which is what we are told on the continuous loop of 24-hour news, reality TV shows, and celebrity gossip. Instead Wiseman takes this opportunity to show us that despite our flaws we are capable of kindness and beauty and connection. I am grateful to Frederick Wiseman for capturing this side of us, albeit fleetingly, but captured nevertheless for all the world to see.