In Jackson Heights Dir. Frederick Wiseman

[Zipporah Films; 2015]

Styles: documentary
Others: National Gallery, At Berkeley

For the last nearly 50 years, Frederick Wiseman has been the premier purveyor of American institutions. From his early years — with the horrifying yet brilliant Titicut Follies and the rigorous yet compassionate High School — to his most recent works — with the sprawling yet meticulously focused At Berkeley and last year’s National Gallery — Wiseman’s watchful eye has captured the mundane machinations that make America tick, including the wide array of human behavior when ground through bureaucracies, workers, visitors, spectators, and prisoners intermingling in common spaces with disparate perspectives on the functions of said spaces. With In Jackson Heights, Wiseman expands his view to numerous institutions all swirling together, sometimes crashing into one another, in a tiny little corner of Queens in New York that is, at least according to their councilman, the most diverse community in the world: Jackson Heights.

Tucked away in this handful of blocks making up this enigmatic neighborhood is a truly staggering amount of diversity. The numbers alone are mind-blowing — 167 languages spoken, over 60% of inhabitants foreign-born, dozens of religious affiliations — but Wiseman isn’t interested in merely giving visual representation to this wonderful melting pot, but also in depicting both the ladles that stir it to keep it fresh and vibrant, and the external forces that threaten to spill the whole stew. In Jackson Heights is not an exposé on a neighborhood but an exploration of a community as an ecosystem, from the mundane political maneuvers and activism that help it function on a large scale to the small classes and support groups that help its various minority groups survive on a smaller, more personal level.

At a shade over three hours, Wiseman again pushes the limits of audience patience (his previous two films were three and four hours long, respectively), but he remarkably offers something new with each scene, almost functioning like an endless series of short films: a 98 year-old woman, painfully alone, even while talking to three women who’ve volunteered to spend time with her, can only muster frustration with society having thrust her aside, her pleasures whittled down to the occasional five-minute conversation with a family member whom she must call; various support groups for the immigrant and LGBT communities work diligently to stave off discrimination and marginalization; a laundromat comes alive with quirky live musical entertainment; an immigration center, trying to make it as easy as possible for the immigrants who enter, repeatedly urges a woman to just simply answer “to vote” when asked why she wants to be an American citizen; a lively city cab teacher brings Never Ever Smoke Weed into the lexicon when teaching his class how to read directions on a map.

As fascinating and insightful as nearly all of these individual pieces are in portraying this community as a multi-dimensional, living, and breathing entity, it’s Wiseman’s editing rhythm that makes In Jackson Heights function as a cohesive whole — not only in terms of its pacing, which ultimately has a serene, musical quality of its own, but also in returning to characters, locations, and themes to re-examine them from different angles. Take for instance its scenes with Daniel Dromm, the first openly gay councilman in the community’s history. Dromm’s motivations are seemingly pure, and he comes across as a true activist who bursts with pride when talking about his home or when giving awards or commendations to other active community members (including an older man named Joe, who is treated to a PG-13 strip-o-gram that leads into a senior citizen dance-off that’s sure to put a smile on your face). Yet we later see members of his team taking a stream of phone calls from constituents complaining about his performance and, later yet, a local businessman who is being forced out by the Queens Business Improvement District with no help from his councilman (presumably not Dromm in this case).

Through all of its perspectives, however, the film neither accuses nor defends, instead opting for a more prismatic vision that portrays the community in all of its contradictions and complications. Wiseman is clear to point out that Jackson Heights still faces the same problems as most of America — political corruption, the encroaching hands of soulless capitalist forces, and prejudice, particularly toward the Heights’s transgender community. At best, the community is shown as something that most towns and cities should strive for, but Jackson Heights itself remains in a constant state of flux, a malleable, ever-fluctuating form that must constantly be groomed, maintained, improved, and reshaped. Its diversity in terms of race, religion and languages, while mostly coexisting in harmony, is also what makes it volatile and an open target for both large institutions (like the BID, which has no history with the community or any stake in it retaining its authenticity) and for hate crimes and police harassment against its most powerless minorities.

But, ultimately, what In Jackson Heights left me with is a powerful sense of hope — hope that in the midst of these troubling times driven by international quagmires, pre-purchased 24-hour media networks, and a broken political system, a community like Jackson Heights exists, and has existed for some time, in peace. And while the American ideal of tolerance and inclusion shouldn’t be relegated to a pocket of Queens with less than 200,000 inhabitants, it’s a comforting reminder that, with a similar sense of communal perseverance and political mobility, other communities like Jackson Heights could survive and flourish. In his own subtle way, Wiseman may just be saying “Let’s make America great again!”

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