If America’s documentary doyen Frederick Wiseman’s latest feature, In Jackson Heights, is something of a colorful patchwork, that’s only because the Queens neighborhood he’s portraying is one too. Not as rigorously composed and dense as some of his recent films, such as La Danse or National Gallery, this three-hour-plus feature, boiled down from over 120 hours of footage, has a slightly grungier structure and appearance and manages to give a sweeping overview of not only the countless nationalities that call Jackson Heights home but also some of the most pressing problems that the locals face, including the devastating effects of gentrification on small businesses; the struggles of often newly arrived, undocumented immigrants and pressing issues related the LGBT community, such as transphobia. Beyond the fall festival trifecta of Venice, Toronto and, of course, New York, this has some niche theatrical potential in major metropolises in Europe and at the usual stateside venues.
This is the third time that Wiseman, still going strong at 85, has tackled the non-fiction subgenre of the community portrait, after 1991’s Aspen and Belfast, Maine, from 1999, both much smaller and more isolated communities than the northwestern part of Queens he portrays here. An early speech by New York Council Member Danny Dromm, at an LGBT gathering at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center, illustrates just how many nationalities live there when he admits that he “shouldn’t have started naming nationalities, because now I need to do all,” with the out politician subsequently rattling off a long and surely still incomplete list as those present shout out helpful suggestions and laugh about him having taken on such an impossible task.
As always, Wiseman remains consistently in the present and avoids any kind of editorializing or background information via voice-over or graphics, simply relying on editing to construct his observational film. The footage, edited by Wiseman himself, is marbled with short shots of the streets, business and places of worship that give a sense of local color around the larger sequences that are roughly organized into three “days,” with an approximate morning-till-night cycle repeated three times. As can be gleaned from the multicolored, occasionally disorderly supporters of the various national teams playing in the Soccer World Cup, the film was shot over nine weeks in the summer of 2014.
The very un-American sight of streets swarmed with soccer enthusiasts is but one of the ways in which the extreme cultural diversity of Jackson Heights is rendered visible. The neighborhood is a true melting pot, with over 160 languages spoken and large, quite young communities from especially Latin America — about three-quarters of the film is in Spanish — and the Indian subcontinent flanking older generations of Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrants. The film’s comedic highlight, a visit to a course on “Brooklyn” for aspiring taxi drivers, all of whom appear to be of foreign origins, suggests both the rich diversity of nationalities and the newcomers’ efforts to try and fit in.
By simply contrasting short sequences that each tell a small story, Wiseman constructs a much larger mosaic. There’s a conversation between a 98-year-old white lady who tells a heavily accented older European women about how lonely she feels or a religious gathering of some elderly Jews, practically lost in a sea of empty chairs, who listen to a text about the Shoah. These stand in stark contrast to the much younger and more numerous Hispanics, who work in restaurants or cleaning businesses and who come to find support in community groups that try and inform them about and defend their rights, or the energetic, ethnic (street) performers that Wiseman weaves in throughout the narrative, with the film further suggesting something about the diverse makeup of the population as it cuts from the face of one onlooker/listener to the next.
That there’s at least some interaction between the many diverse and occasionally overlapping minority groups is shown several times, with an elderly white lady trying to teach English to Asian newcomers who hope to apply for an American passport — her advice: say you want a passport to vote and participate in the democratic process — or when native English speakers switch to Spanish to try and help those who don’t (yet) speak English deal with issues such as adoption or regularizing their presence on U.S. soil.
One of the most surprising elements, perhaps, is Wiseman’s clear engagement with the queer and trans communities, which have not been foregrounded in his oeuvre this explicitly. Like organizations such as Make the Road New York, which helps and informs Spanish-speaking immigrants, the Jackson Heights LGBT community’s various efforts are returned to repeatedly. They organize joyous events such the Queens Pride Parade but also offer support for marginalized, elderly gay people or transsexuals who deal with discrimination and harassment. Through simple inclusion, Wiseman lets the various parts of his material enter into dialogue with one another, so the claim from NYC mayor Bill de Blasio, a Queens Pride Parade special guest, that the city and the NYPD stand with the LGBTs, stands in stark contrast to the stories of transsexuals who claim that the police are staking out the nightclubs where they work.
Another recurring topic is the subject of gentrification, with a planned Business Improvement District (BID) in Jackson Heights being seen as potentially fatal for the many ethnic restaurants and small businesses operated by immigrant families. Even before the vote on the BID, the interest of big chain stores is making the faceless owners decide not to renew the lease of countless smaller stores so they can be converted into bigger ones, often ending the run of businesses that have been there for years and employ people who are now in their forties and fifties and for whom it’s hard to find employment elsewhere. Here too, the material speaks for itself, with Wiseman intentionally devoting a lot of time to endless meetings. And just like in real life, they are repetitive and boring but necessary, with community organizers trying their best to mobilize those across language and cultural barriers who stand to be affected. This suggestion of potentially disastrous socio-economic malaise for the local working class in the near future in turn contrasts with the footage of all those who have come and seem to keep coming to Jackson Heights from abroad to work and escape much worse situations in their home countries.
If anything, In Jackson Heights highlights to what an extent this neighborhood is — for now — a place where people have each other’s backs, which is perhaps an old-school but mighty fine definition of what a neighborhood can be.
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