The complex and often paradoxical nature of institutions is the definitive interest of prolific documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, and at age 90 he’s released his 46th film, a four-hour-and-32-minute epic examining Boston’s City Hall. Whether in board rooms, on garbage routes or inside Boston apartments, Wiseman reveals the broad scale and impact of city government in all of its glory—when this well-oiled machine works seamlessly, that is—but also highlights the lack of essential services and resources for Boston’s most vulnerable communities and citizens.
Wiseman paints intimate portraits of parts of society that on the surface might seem banal and unextraordinary, but are in fact exhilarating in their hidden details. The filmmaker’s verité style of filming allows the viewer to not only be a spectator, but a student of the mechanics of these systems. There are no interviews, narration or text to guide us; instead, we’re completely absorbed in the spaces and interactions Wiseman films, eventually becoming embedded in the institutions he unpacks.
While City Hall is certainly drenched in Wiseman’s trademark style, it is also distinct among the filmmaker’s massive catalogue due to his personal relationship with Boston: He was born and raised in the city and taught at Boston University before his film career. His first film, the 1967 documentary Titicut Follies, depicts the squalid living conditions of the Bridgewater State Hospital at the time, located only 25 miles outside of the city. The filmmaker also took to Boston for the similarly-lengthy 1989 film Near Death, which follows patients and medical personnel in the ICU at Beth Israel Hospital. Over 50 years after Titicut Follies and 30 years after Near Death, City Hall feels like a homecoming film for Wiseman in many ways—returning to a city that served as both residence and inspiration for the filmmaker throughout his career.
It is also rife with optimism, especially through the film’s following of Marty Walsh, who has served as Boston’s mayor since 2014. The recurring role of Walsh in City Hall is certainly unique for a Wiseman film, as characters generally don’t reemerge throughout his documentaries, rather serving as kaleidoscopic examples of aspects of institutions interrogated. This is because Wiseman finds Walsh’s duties as mayor to be vital to the function of City Hall—and perhaps because Wiseman sees Walsh as emblematic of the American civil service that is so severely lacking in the White House.
The film follows Walsh to diversity summits, community centers and press conferences, always observing the mayor’s penchant for relating to his constituents on an extremely human level. While some of these attempts are somewhat misguided—such as a scene of Walsh comparing the plight of Irish-Americans during the 20th century to the experiences of a room of Latinx City Hall employees—there is always a feeling of Walsh’s ability to relate to his constituents on a level that appears novel during our deeply unsettling times of political strife. Especially in the context of Trump, Walsh’s dedication to Boston’s Latinx population resulted in the mayor declaring in 2017 that Boston City Hall—including his office—is always available for undocumented minors seeking shelter and a place to sleep. City Hall appears to be somewhat enamored with Walsh’s status as a figure who appeals to humanity in lieu of hate, but it ultimately isn’t ignorant about the vast shortcomings of the system.
While it’s clear that Walsh wants to help out and do good by the people of Boston, the intrinsic nature of city government means that these good intentions don’t manifest into helpful policy fast enough—or sometimes at all—let alone in any real meaningful way. This is primarily shown through seemingly small cracks in the system, such as standstills in responses to the opioid epidemic or inadequate protections for the city’s homeless population, which are debated ad nauseam but cannot be properly addressed due to budgets, developers and votes—aspects of governance that the people affected by these issues have little control over. When developers can continue to construct high-rise buildings that displace long-time residents yet remain empty in the face of a rise in homelessness, simply building more houses is not the solution. If the government readily expects a certain faction of the population to become homeless or live below the poverty line, the government is simply not working for its citizens.
But when the system does work, it is spectacular. This is the subtle beauty and thrill of institutions functioning as they’re supposed to—institutions we might ultimately take for granted. These aspects of city government largely take place outside of City Hall, instead serving Boston on a much larger and ubiquitous scale. A simple scene in which garbage is collected off the street is particularly riveting, the metal compactor whirring and consuming civilians’ daily refuge in comically huge portions—box springs and barbecue grills reduced to meager splinters and shrapnel. Equally satisfying is the painting of a bus lane, the thick goops of viscous glue followed by shimmering red gravel efficiently streamlining public transportation.
Wiseman’s top-down approach to looking at government is both effective at sketching out the priorities of those in charge as well as demonstrating what they’re actually able to execute. City Hall posits that Boston is a city that is desperately trying to protect and serve its citizens—particularly those that have been purposefully disenfranchised and dismissed throughout the city’s history—but it also demonstrates that the power of civilian engagement and organizing. The “climax” of the film involves a town hall meeting between Asian-American developers with plans to open a marijuana dispensary and the majority Black residents of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood who are suspicious of the economic and cultural impacts the business would have in their community. There is no representative from City Hall at the meeting, only guidelines and mandates cited by the developers on the behalf of the city. Yet the power of democratic government comes from a confident cry from a community member dissatisfied by the parameters of the meeting: “We need to get organized and get to the city, then. We need to change this process.”
During the first five minutes of City Hall, Marty Walsh says, “I don’t think we do a good enough job of telling that story of what we actually do in this city.” Wiseman takes this statement as a challenge, shooting hundreds of hours of footage in order to relay to the public exactly what goes on, both behind closed doors within City Hall and outside our own front doors on the city streets. Ironically, Walsh made that comment during a meeting that discusses police accountability and public trust, but citizens are paying closer attention now more than ever, in part because of the vast human toll that poor accountability has had on the very minority communities that Boston seems so desperate to try and protect.
Living through COVID and immense political strife has put City Hall into greater perspective. Amid a summer of country-wide protests denouncing police brutality and the unjust murders of Black civilians, Boston activists called on Walsh to reduce Boston’s police department by at least 10 percent for the 2021 fiscal budget. In July, Walsh diverted $12 million from police overtime spending, less than three percent of the overall police budget. Imminent nation-wide suffering and systemic inadequacy rage on, making it all too clear that the infrastructure in place was never enough to save us—at least not all of us.
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Release Date: September 8, 2020
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.