Whether he is tackling high schools, welfare or the ballet, Frederick Wiseman’s films are about the real and artificial boundaries that hold society together. Recently, the director has expanded that definition to include neighborhoods and public spaces, and his latest film, In Jackson Heights (among his most ambitious to date), brings us deep into a culturally diverse New York neighborhood, as Wiseman focuses in on encroaching gentrification as the central conflict that holds the film together.
Like most of Wiseman’s work, the central character is not an individual, but the crowd. I can’t help wondering if Wiseman — removed from the propaganda of Soviet Russia — has truly achieved the cinema that Eisenstein wrote about. With his rigorous editing process and democratizing, observing eye, Wiseman allows the community itself to become the central character. A shot featuring a crowd of Colombians watching TV in a storefront (their images reflecting onto the game) highlight the film’s optimism as the image feels resoundingly celebratory. In Jackson Heights portrays the struggles of small business owners in the face of gentrification and corporate strangleholds, so the image — rather than taking on cynical notes — becomes about coming together. It reflects the intimacy of the co-relationship between the disappearing middle-class business owners and the communities they serve. The imposing threat of gentrification is painted as wrought with corruption and a far cry from the idealized portrait of capitalism as an agent for good and liberation. In 5-10 years, it seems impossible that the community will survive on its current path, as it will be swallowed whole by the insatiable appetite of corporate giants.
Much of In Jackson Heights takes place in community centre spaces, as various members of the community tackle a wide range of pressing issues ranging from immigration, LGBT rights, zoning laws and small business ownership. The film is one of the truly multilingual films I’ve ever seen, as English takes a backseat and Spanish, Arabic and Hindi take centre stage, revealing just a slice of the 167 languages spoken in the neighborhood. But representation, as the film explores, is never enough. Having people who look or speak like you and your community is just the first step on screen and in government.
As diversity takes centre stage, In Jackson Heights demonstrates the importance of local governments and organizations in building a healthy community; the process itself becomes integral to bringing the people together through education and discussion. In such a dense area with so many different people (many of whom are marginalized in some way), the defining characteristic of Jackson Heights becomes the willingness to talk. Wiseman’s film is hinged on communication, as people discuss with incredible candour their struggles and dreams, bringing weight to political and philosophical ideas through direct experience.
Running at 190 minutes, In Jackson Heights feels incredibly brisk. As the credits rolled, it was hard not to feel that you were suddenly far from home. Jackson Heights feels like a place worth fighting for, and just as cathartic as being drawn into that environment may be, it is a struggle to be pulled away. Wiseman’s careful observations offer dignity to the residents of Jackson Heights, and as the people from a diversity of backgrounds and experience accept the community as their home, the energy and love they put into improving their neighborhood connects them to it. The film is deliriously anti-consumerism, suggesting indirectly that the consequences and symptoms of capitalism run rampant are not only alienating but destructive.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.