In Jackson Heights

In Jackson Heights ★★★★½

'In Jackson Heights' is different from most documentaries. ("Jackson Heights" is a neighborhood/mini-city in the Queens borough of New York City.)

The film covers many individuals and groups rather than just one or two. It covers a broad range of concerns rather than just a few. And at a little over three hours it's twice or even three times as long as a typical documentary. It's very low-key rather than advocating or shaming. Its organizing principle seems to be simply stops in every block for quite a ways along a street. The result of all this is the whole film projecting a "sense of place".

This is the master showing how it's done, a sort of benediction. Frederick Wiseman has been making documentaries all his life, and is now so old it's surprising he made another film at all. It all looks so casual and easy, just set up the camera and let it run. There's no obvious agenda and no apparent thematic organization. Yet in the end, even despite the film's length and diversity, somehow it all coheres and holds your interest.

Many of the snippets are highly unusual, and would typically form the core of a documentary all by themselves. Just one example: have you ever been a student in a belly-dancing class?

And some things are returned to several times, until we get a more well-rounded picture. We see the local politician at an official event, and at a more personal unofficial event, and lobbying a small group. We see his storefront office, and we see his boiler-room-like operation trying to respond to all citizen queries and complaints.

The generic problems of neighborhood/mini-cities in the U.S. get attention: Future directions controlled more by private developers than by any government organization or even by the residents themselves. Powerlessness of the local politician and residents, with the "real" decisions being made in some nameless faceless higher level of government. Hamstrung by lots of bureaucratic rule holdovers that don't make any sense any more.

Much of Wiseman's work adheres so strongly to the "fly-on-the wall" asthetic that it's sometimes accused of being "cold" or "unemotional". But not this one - the sense of vibrant people living in a vibrant place really comes through. This is a must-see for docu-freaks.