Frederick Wiseman is widely celebrated as one of today’s greatest living documentary filmmakers. Since 1967 he has directed 40 documentaries that portray ordinary human experience in a wide variety of social institutions. His films include: La Danse (2009), Central Park (1991), Crazy Horse (2011) and National Gallery (2014). Architecture certainly plays a major role in his movies, but Wiseman explained to DMovies that “this was not intentional”. Now he brings a loose narrative, of over three hours long, about of community in Queens called Jackson Heights (in New York, in the US).
In Jackson Heights can be defined with just one word: diversity. In 10 weeks, the director collected 103 hours of material and cut it down to a movie of 180 minutes. He filmed barbers, small shops, tattooers, transgenders, old ladies knitting together in a restaurant, ducks killed and sold as fresh meat by Chinese, Latin communities discussing the rights of their illegal immigrants and the birthday parties of Council members. There is also plenty of religious activity: Islamic schools, Hindu temples and Christians saying a prayer on the streets. He even went to a synagogue and shot discussions about tolerance towards gays. The ethnically and religiously-diverse neighbourhood of Jackson Heights provides a spontaneous and chaotic picture of the American way of life.
The many colours of the community, the signs in more than 167 languages and the intrusion of the crossroads connecting train platforms give to the film a sense of disintegration, but still their inhabitants find their way to defend themselves against big corporations and estate agent’s speculation. This ugliness and this filth are somehow peculiar and original, and they give the community strength.
Wiseman explained to DMovies that an American law establishes that people in the streets are not obliged to give their formal consent if they are framed. Most of the times, after a day shooting in a public space, Wiseman’s crew asks for their permission; but this is not a rule. Even so, it is amazing how Wiseman got their trust considering that most of them only saw the filmmaker once. Some other documentarists have to follow their subject for months in order to elicit a genuine and heartfelt statement in front of a camera. Wiseman chose to leave some very long interviews largely intact in the movie because he wanted to preserve integrality of the material, shot in many of the 167 local languages.
The editing process took over a year, and Wiseman was careful enough to intersperse the lengthy interview with shorter, more dynamic takes. Sentimental confessions and strong events are normally followed by filming on the streets, as if the director wanted his audiences people to go outside, breathe and think. But still it is a long film.
In Jackson Heights was shown in London as part of Architecture on Film section at the Barbican Centre. Though it received funds from Sundance Institute and was awarded by the New York Film Critics Circle, it still has no distribution in the UK. DMovies will keep an eye open and let you know once the film is shown in other events or made viewable online. Alternatively, you can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and they will inform you once the DVD becomes available. It was released in France on March 23rd 2016.
Watch the film trailer: