Kaleidoscopic in a most humanitarian and intimate sense, Frederick Wiseman's 40th documentary is an observance of beauty in culture and everyday life.
In Jackson Heights
Documentarian Frederick Wiseman is 85 years old. An odd stat to begin a review with, granted, but In Jackson Heights is no ordinary documentary and in thinking about it, my knee-jerk reaction is to start with something personal. With age comes experience, understanding, and a widened scope of the world around you. For all the exceptional documentaries Wiseman has been making since the ’60s, there is a weighted atmosphere in his latest one that could easily mark it as his magnum opus precisely because of all the things that come with age. Bear in mind that it’s not easy to write ‘easily’ when it comes to Wiseman, especially with the man’s latest works—the riveting At Berkley (2013) and majestic National Gallery (2014)—ranking among the best of his prolific career. But In Jackson Heights is kaleidoscopic in a most humanitarian and intimate sense; it’s the observance of beautiful forms in culture and everyday life. In this case: a bustling neighborhood in Queens, New York, one of the most culturally diverse areas in the whole world, proudly speaking 167 languages as a community. It’s the Tower of Babel converging on Roosevelt Avenue, with Wiseman’s camera observing, documenting, and eternally reflecting, and with the viewer vicariously experiencing a gamut of life’s pleasures and pains.
The documentary is an ode to the bonds of community, where the villain is an off-screen American capitalist system, and the victims are small businesses, the LGBT enclaves, and the illegal immigrants striving for the same humanitarian means of life afforded by their American neighbors. The heroes are found in the young people who create community organizations to fight the thwarted system of the BID (Business Improvement District), or those brave enough to speak up, share their stories, and forge bonds. Wiseman takes us into a commemoration gathering for a murdered Latino member of the LGBT community, Muslim prayer halls, Holocaust remembrance ceremonies in synagogues, tattoo parlors, concert halls, and gay clubs. We listen in on a conference call where bureaucratic jargon bungles the matter of redistricting schools (not to mention the implications that has on the children and the parents). We listen how a 98-year-old woman justifies her sour mood to a group of friends, in one of the many scenes that test your tear ducts (which have already been weakened earlier by a woman’s spontaneous encounter with a Christian group on the streets earlier on).
In Jackson Heights runs for over three hours, but you’re so immersed into the people’s stories, that it literally feels like half an hour. Musical interludes, from street performers and open-air concerts, punctuate the mood like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, imbibing the whole experience with a surplus of emotion and an embarrassment of cultural richness. At times, it’s the silent and bloody behind-the-scenes look at how halal meat is processed that glues us in. In others, it’s Joe’s birthday, an upstanding member of the Jackson Heights community who gets a heartfelt birthday speech from councilman Daniel Dromm. Most of all, it’s the soul-crushing stories from the trans people, illegal immigrants, and small business owners that will bulldoze you into silent submission. But, then, peeping into a classroom of would-be yellow cab drivers will have you grinning from ear to ear.
There’s hardly a misplaced frame, so formally balanced and meticulously crafted is In Jackson Heights. Exterior shots of the vibrant and colorful neighborhood are juxtaposed beautifully with the interior locales. Moments of contemplation nicely sway between long conversational stretches. And for all of life’s trials and tribulations witnessed through stories of discrimination and inhumanity spelled between the lines of fine print, there is plenty of kindness from strangers and reassuring and laugh-out-loud moments of grace and joy. If there’s one thing I feel lacking, it’s that Wiseman could’ve kept his camera a little longer on some people for an even wider spectrum. As such, one gets the impression that In Jackson Heights is a neighborhood where 167 languages are spoken, but mostly Spanish and English is heard.
Harping too much on something like that, however, is biting the hand that feeds. And Frederick Wiseman, with his experience, understanding, and widely empathetic scope, has given us an almost indescribable amount of food-for-thought. Calling In Jackson Heights important would be the biggest understatement of the year, for the greatest thing about getting so immersed with the conversations and quotidian glimpses are the little jolts (usually in the form of goose-bumps) reminding you that this is real life you’re watching. Who needs talking heads and central conflicts? Not this doc. You feel unequivocally more connected to the person next to you, and even the stranger you’ll pass by on the street the next day. And isn’t that what it’s all about?