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NYFF: In Jackson Heights

Manuel here visiting one of my favorite New York City neighborhoods with a great guide by my side, the great Frederick Wiseman in his new doc which screened as part of the New York Film Festival.

Last summer, the day before Colombia played its World Cup match against Brazil, I was set to meet some friends in Jackson Heights to grab some hot dogs (such good hot dogs!) and go out to some of the gay clubs around Roosevelt Avenue. Little did I know Frederick Wiseman was busy filming In Jackson Heights right around the same time: framed by the World Cup and ending with the July 4th fireworks, it seems totally plausible he was shooting that very same day!

I share this anecdote because more than anything else, Wiseman’s film feels like a truly immersive visit to this Queens neighborhood. [More...]

...I half-expected to see a vision (or version) of me in the corner of the screen in one of many street-crowd scenes that make up the bulk of Wiseman’s 190 minute film. Wiseman’s camera canvases all the neighborhood has to offer: LGBT groups, immigration counseling services, Latin restaurants, senior center gatherings, eyebrow threading businesses, Catholic masses, pride parades, business community meetings, taxi cab lessons… well, you get the idea.

The camera lingers on so many faces that they themselves become the central focus of the piece. Jackson Heights may be one neighborhood but it is, of course, many neighborhoods, each comprised of a diverse roster of people, carrying within them cultures, nations, religions, and values that make up and challenge the very unity of what we may call “Jackson Heights.”

What could very well be mere immersion emerges also as a stark snapshot of a cultural moment in New York City and American politics. If Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next heads abroad to make a doc about the various social ills that afflict the United States, Wiseman goes for the inverse approach. In going granular, examining what may just be the most diverse neighborhood in the entire world, In Jackson Heights addresses and dramatizes issues of gentrification, immigration, police brutality, redistricting, city politics, educational reform, trans and homophobia. More thrillingly, Wiseman is unafraid to embrace the complexities of these debates, as when he juxtaposes a press conference where a community group congratulates police officers for taking great strides to increase traffic safety with scenes of police violence during the raucous party that greeted one of Colombia’s victories at the World Cup, as well as testimonials of trans women accusing policemen of harassing them. None of these three scenes are privileged over the other, but their proximity speaks volumes about the lack of easy narratives to be discerned from the film unspooling before you.

Wiseman, a consummate documentarian, lets his empathetic images speak for themselves, even as the artistry comes through in their presentation. It is no accident, for example, that we begin with an LGBT meeting planning the parade and remembering the loss of Julio Rivera (whose death in 1990 led to the first Queens pride march) and end with an immigration support group whose hostile rhetoric against Muslims is quickly abated by the group’s moderator, who calls instead for a humanist understanding of those whose religion, color, and nationality we may not know or understand. In Jackson Heights may be called a celebration of the “melting pot” that is America, New York City, Jackson Heights, but one may do better in referring to it as a visual reframing of such a metaphor; there is nothing that compels Wiseman to melt down these differences to create something new. He crafts instead a diverse mosaic of faces and people whose commitment to this neighborhood, this city, this country, is all that bridges (but doesn’t erase) their differences.

In Jackson Heights played on Sunday October 4th at the New York Film Festival and opens in limited release on November 4th.

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Reader Comments (3)

Definitely can't wait to watch this especially living in the area-ish. I've only heard good things so far!

October 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Whenever I see a Frederick Wiseman film, it stays with me for a long time. He doesn't seem to be telling me what to think. I find this a little disconcerting at the beginning, but after a while, I begin to find myself thinking. Thinking, not having opinions.

Wiseman is one of the greatest living American directors. He has illuminated so many aspects of American life.

Best Director: Frederick Wiseman.

October 9, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteradri

AT BERKELEY and NATIONAL GALLERY are extraordinary, and given my penchant for observational documentaries about NYC, I'm sure this will be no different. I just hope I get to see it at some point now that I'm not actually in NYC.

October 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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