Review originally published here.
A study in unassuming observation, In Jackson Heights is director Frederick Wiseman’s 40th documentary, taking in the changing face and heart of the diverse New York neighbourhood of Jackson Heights, Queens.
It would be tempting to label this film as simply a portrait of yet another lively neighbourhood being squeezed in the rapacious talons of bland gentrification, but Wiseman’s outlook is more complex. His shots come in close, picking out a man handling fruit, a woman dozing, a couple slow-dancing in a darkened bar, and then the camera leans out again to take in the street, the train, and the cars rushing by. The gradual unrolling of each unexplained scene has a soothing, meditative effect, and for a good hour or so, one is content to simply drift along, experiencing the neighbours and the neighbourhood as if wearing an invisibility cloak. No one addresses the camera and nothing is – or at least, nothing seems – staged. People talk about film stars, border crossings and politics, dogs are groomed, food is eaten, and ordinary people are observed at the ordinary business of living.
In fact, the gentle inclusiveness of In Jackson Heights is its greatest appeal, and the empathy with which Wiseman captures this slice of time and place is testament to the 85-year-old’s commendably broad view of both history and culture. The film’s political undercurrent is alternately illustrated and obscured by its sheer volume of textural detail, although there are many memorable scenes of Jackson Heights residents championing their own rights, including LGBT equality, an eight-hour day, and small business owners banding together in an attempt to fight the notorious “Business Improvement District” schemes of shadowy real estate heavyweights. Bursts of live music and the rattle of trains provide the recurrent rhymes to Wiseman’s visual poetry but are not quite powerful enough to maintain cohesion for the diverse array of socio-economic issues touched upon in the film’s 190 minutes.
Wiseman trusts his audience. For In Jackson Heights he eschews traditional, didactic documentary narratives, omitting the more commonplace techniques of voiceover, flashback and interview. Instead, he permits the audience their own nuanced and multi-layered exploration of the neighbourhood’s social conditions: a liberating experience if a touch overlong.