My Intermedia Studies class traveled to film forum today to watch a screening of Frederick Wiseman's new documentary In Jackson Heights. We went as a class at my request because a couple of students and I enjoy documentary and stylistically I can relate with the director's use of cinema verite.
The documentary is a neighborhood portrait of the Jackson Heights in Queens. It doesn’t follow one person or group of subjects because Jackson Heights is the subject.
The neighborhood is melting pot of cultures with over 168 spoken languages, according to the the neighborhood’s councilman. It is home to immigrants. It is home to gays and transgenders. It is home to elderly. It’s a colorful and vibrant neighborhood whose inhabitants are proud to call their home.
Not a character study; A neighborhood study
The film focused a lot on political activism on a local scale. We become flies on the wall as we see local activists gather together to try to solve the community’s problems; from gentrification, sexual discrimination, immigration, etc.
If I had to name an antagonist it’d be the Business Improvement District. It acts like the bogeyman to many of the small business owners. The BID, according to locals, is trying to push out the lower and middle class families of the neighborhood in order to gentrify the area. It’s an us versus them story in a way.
And yet, it’s not. Because while the film leads you to believe that this narrative is in fact about these small businesses rising together to prevent the area from becoming Bushwick and Long Island City, that plotline doesn’t get resolved. Instead we, the flies on the wall, go from one part of the area to another and just observe life.
The movie is just over three hours long. And that can be a turn off to some people. For example when I was leaving the movie theater I overheard a guy tell his friend that he was owed three hours of his life. And I understand because a an editor I would trim a lot fat from the film. But that might detract from some of the documentary’s core message; Activism is boring.