Mr. Democracy

Frederick Wiseman’s doc In Jackson Heights holds up a mirror.

Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is widely hailed as the king of cinéma-vérité, one of the most important documentarians in the world. Beginning in the 1960s with such fly-on-the-wall portraits of reality as Titicut Follies and High School, Wiseman has packed his camera and sound crew, and almost nothing else, into an eye-openingly diverse array of locations, including his 2013 visit to the UC Berkeley campus, In Berkeley. Wiseman’s docs illuminate the inner workings of social structures and gatherings by leisurely, measured accretion of detail. And as we watch life unfold through the camera’s eye, we can glimpse the patterns and themes of people’s lives in a way no narrative can approach.

Wiseman’s latest, In Jackson Heights, takes us to that section of Queens, New York for a three-hour, ten-minute look around. Jackson Heights prides itself as a model multi-cultural neighborhood, with some 167 languages spoken on its streets (Spanish most of all). As usual, Wiseman has no pre-set point of view; what emerges is what he happens upon. And as we hang out in a madrasa; an LGBT seniors’ meeting; a salsa-music nightclub; an immigrants’ rights workshop; beauty and barber shops; a Latino transsexual support group; a belly-dancing class; a Holocaust remembrance in a Jewish temple; a tattoo parlor; a halal poultry butcher shop; a Colombian World Cup soccer party; a pedestrian safety rally; and a botanica, we begin to see in Jackson Heights an electrifying example of close-knit hometown democracy in action. People talking and listening.

As in many urban neighborhoods in America, the residents are particularly alarmed at signs of gentrification, in which moneyed newcomers — in this case from high-rent Manhattan, a short train ride away — are coming in, buying property, raising housing costs, and forcing out long-time residents, especially people of color. The City of New York’s Business Improvement District program (BID) is causing a lot of worry among la gente. Many of the scenes take place in community gatherings. No conclusions are drawn. There is no voiceover to tell us what to think. But we can see the issues of the day as they live and breathe. Thank you, Mr. Wiseman. Long may you wander and observe.


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