In the City That Never Sleeps, dozens of neighborhoods, enclaves and street corners feed the ebb and flow of life for over 8 million people. Ambitious (and legendary, with more than a few films on our greatest docs list) documentarian Fredrick Wiseman focuses his lens not on the popular poster child of Manhattan, but into the tucked away borough block of Jackson Heights. Located in Queens, it is one of the most diverse sections of New York, elevating this quiet documentary into an incredible, illuminating look at America’s melting pot mid-boil.
Like in pretty much every one of his 40+ past efforts, including last year’s National Gallery, with In Jackson Heights Wiseman doesn’t settle for one storyline. Instead, he wants viewers to experience, feel and discover the environment with him—in total. Cramped, ill-lit spaces provide just as much to film as the spacious temples and churches that loom over the area; eavesdropping on small knitting circles can be as electric as attending a pride parade with Mayor Bill de Blasio. The movie’s soundtrack is the clack-clack-clack of the elevated trains rolling over shaky platforms, thwarted by the occasional ambulance rushing through crowded crosswalks, its siren jutting over conversations about rising rents and former loves. A barrage of different languages are not always translated, rather left unexplained, just as if you’re passing them on the sidewalk. In Wiseman’s eyes, daily minutia is just as momentous as the big days and bigger stories that blur together in this kaleidoscopic view of the City.
In Jackson Heights doesn’t make light of what happens when longtime residents brush up against the new: Socioeconomic conflict, the film observes, is just as much an obstacle of the past as it is of the present, as are the mixing of traditional and more progressive values. In true New York fashion, well-dressed club goers pass traditionally dressed bystanders; no one bats an eye. An extended conversation in the film’s first hour about the rise of community activism in the wake of the murder of a gay Latino precedes a scene in which a trans support group meets to help each other and remember their lost loved ones. Meanwhile, another circle of LGBTQ folks discusses how the recent rise in rents may displace and disperse their tight-knit community.
This concern, of dispersal, permeates much of the film. It’s echoed among the Spanish-speaking residents of Jackson Heights, with Latinos the largest ethnic group in the neighborhood. Over the course of several scenes, various renters are surveyed about the encroaching threat of gentrification. “We’ll all be kicked out,” says one passionate man, emphasizing his words with his hands. “We, the small business, can’t continue working here.” It’s a bubbling question facing both new and old New Yorkers: Will we have to leave the homes we’ve had for generations? In Jackson Heights makes this question seem like it’s the talk of the town—of every town in America, really.
But light-hearted moments punctuate all the serious talk. Aside from the quiet strangeness in his observing everyday life from afar, there is something endlessly fascinating in the way Wiseman’s camera moves from subject to subject, silently capturing people’s reactions when they aren’t expecting it. A surprise singing telegram elicits some raised brows at a party, just as a musical troupe playing in a laundromat receives strained stares from onlookers wincing at their performance. Wiseman’s lens doesn’t seem to interject, to stuff an unnatural presence into the room: No one poses for his camera. He simply records them and the life around them as they are, always in the right place at the right time.
Which is why Wiseman should be such a celebrated filmmaker: In Jackson Heights is as much an anthropological study of the Queens neighborhood as it is a cross-section of America. The documentary is full of life in almost every scene, whether it’s on a street corner, behind a miniscule storefront or sitting patiently at a laundromat. Much like it is in the City, in the film the barriers between public and private rarely exist. Intimate conversations take place in streets or coffee shops—almost none of the sequences in the movie look to have been filmed in a home. In Jackson Heights is New York: all of its fears, dreams, hopes and daily concerns rolled up into a relatively (especially for Wiseman) short film.
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Release Date: November 6, 2015
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Los Angeles. You can usually find her outside of a movie theater excitedly talking about the film she just saw or on Twitter.