In Jackson Heights by renowned American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman premiered the week at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Wiseman, an 86-year-old documentary veteran, is known for his distinct storytelling style—one that challenges conventional narrative formats.
Wiseman films often forgo narration, a soundtrack, info-graphics, introductions, or distinct conclusions. Instead, they reveal only a patchwork of vignettes that invite viewers to make sense of fleeting moments for themselves.
In his latest documentary, the immersive filmmaker directs his lens to Jackson Heights, a culturally diverse neighborhood, in Queens, New York City, where 167 languages are spoken.
What unravels during the next three hours explores issues of gentrification, immigration, and diversity in the United States.
Wiseman explores these themes against the neighborhood’s elaborate social and civic historical background, documenting what he calls “institutions”—the community groups, political movements, and businesses that operate in Jackson Heights.
He embeds his audience into meetings with LGBT groups, places of worship, classrooms, barbershops, nail-shops, bars, diners, and take-out shops.
‘In Jackson Heights’ is a visual kaleidoscopic feast full of colorful close-up motifs of faces, shopfronts, neon signs, and foods, reinforcing notions of diversity.
The cinematography is unsophisticated, the soundtrack is minimal, apart from some actuality recorded on location. Panoramic wide-shots of the distant Manhattan skyline interlock with the clanking sounds of the over-ground 7-subway line, and the ever-present city traffic. Car horns, ambulances, fire, and police sirens help bring the atmosphere of ‘In Jackson Heights’ to life.
Momentary glimpses into the lives of residents are funny and heart-warming. A small group of immigrants banter in broken English about becoming U.S. citizens. Students at taxi-driving school laugh at their instructor’s absurd mnemonic methods for remembering where city toll-ways are.
Other scenes are distressing. Celia, a middle-aged Mexican-born woman, describes the horror when her daughter went missing trying to cross the US-Mexican border. “We get wet on the Rio Grande. Those who came before got wet on the Atlantic. That is the difference”, the discussion moderator exclaims at the end of Celia’s compelling story.
Then there are scenes that are so obscure, they leave the audience wondering what on earth just happened. In one, residents endure an awkward percussion performance in a local laundromat. It’s sonically painful and seems to go on forever. The horror of those in attendance is obvious, too, and this is just one example.
In Jackson Heights is in need of an edit—it’s too long—but it’s an absorbing and endearing tale of a borough which delights in its simplicity against the hyper-reality of New York City.