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Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights: Cinéma vérité from the heart of Queens

By Laura Hess

“I’m left wondering what the reality of this country is. There are many liberties, but no one is listening to you.” Standing in front of a community support group, a man recounts his recent, and possibly wrongful, termination by his employer.

Frederick Wiseman, however, is indeed listening. The release of In Jackson Heights marks the 40th documentary by the acclaimed and prolific filmmaker. Recently screened at Northwestern University, in the Block Museum’s Pick-Laudati Auditorium, In Jackson Heights immerses the audience within the culturally variegated New York neighborhood. Consistent with Wiseman’s long-established style, there is no voice-over, no soundtrack, no to-camera interviews; private moments retain a compellingly intimate quality. The film’s sinuous path knits together many such moments from this diverse district of Queens, which reportedly includes 167 different languages.

Scenes include loom-like eyebrow threading, public prayer between strangers, slaughtering of live chickens and a shopping cart of goat carcasses, a harpist hunched over sheet music for two cymbalists performing in a laundromat, and a Chihuahua fitted for an appropriately-sized fútbol jersey. There are Homeric tales of immigrants crossing the United States border, ongoing struggles for local, independent businesses as gentrification and subsequent rent hikes threaten their existence, and the perseverance of the LGBT community to gain acceptance and quell discrimination and violence. All are anchored through a Chekhovian lens of the deeply serious and seriously comedic relationships, hopes, fears, and daily life for the residents of Jackson Heights. This mesmerizing, three-hour journey feels slightly akin to a Samsara for the inner city. Seemingly mundane activities or interactions are transformed into rhythm and theatrical composition, micro-ballets and Greek tragedies.

Post-screening, Northwestern’s Debra Tolchinsky, director of the MFA in Documentary Media program, lead a Q&A with Wiseman. As the School of Communication’s 2016 Hoffman Professor for Documentary Media, a short-term filmmaker residency, Wiseman fielded questions about his process. As is his tradition, he helms a lean operation, working only with a cameraman and a coordinator. There is no predetermined thesis prior to shooting; he explained, “There are no rules. The shoot is a great adventure… a Las Vegas roulette wheel.” Wiseman does, however, follow a personal axiom of respecting the subjects in his films, “I feel greater obligation to people who have given me permission to record their lives.” While Wiseman concurs his films are never utterly objective, In Jackson Heights stands as yet another masterful portrayal of the beauty and burden of human behavior.

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