Toronto 2015: ‘In Jackson Heights’ review


Another year, another Frederick Wiseman documentary, reaffirming his elegant mastery of his chosen medium. It’s always refreshing to see the veteran director continuing to work in his trademark long-form, observational style – particularly in a contemporary marketplace that tends to be dominated by sabre-rattling, issue-driven fare. Wiseman’s films have a bewitching experiential quality to them, creating the illusion of being part of the world he has transcribed to screen – less like a fly on the wall than someone sat around the very same table. In Jackson Heights (2015) is a typically engrossing living-portrait of a ethnically diverse neighbourhood in Queens and the threats it faces.

Drama is not the watchword here as Wiseman drops into various locations unobtrusively recording both the banal everyday and his renowned interest in the way that communities organise themselves. Community shines through as the primary thematic concern of the piece, but when emerged in such a densely layered subject there are naturally myriad offshoots, all of which are considered with equal compassion. From support groups for immigrant populations, to meetings about a new space for the active LGBT society and a series of protracted discussions about the gentrification of the area and the way that it is slowly homogenising a colourful borough.

Wiseman takes pains to record the presentation given to local shopkeepers by their landlord who has been hiking rents. Through it, both tenant and viewer comes to understand the monolithic institutions that ultimately control the nature of the real estate in Jackson Heights – even for those that have owned property for over twenty years. Elsewhere, longstanding local resident Joe enjoys birthday celebrations at which the mayor speaks in his honour and residents gather to commemorate the death of a gay man, Julio Riveria, in 1990 which was the catalyst for a concerted and enduring effort to combat homophobia and support gay rights. In amongst the meetings and planning lie the quieter moments: a tattoo parlour going about its business; children playing music in a laundrette; chickens being slaughtered in a battery house; women learning to belly-dance; Muslim children in school. Discrimination, support, inequality, rebellion, life, death and much more contribute to this sprawling meditation on community which embraces all of its foibles. In Jackson Heights once again broadcasts Wiseman’s impeccable ability to edit together footage with no fanfare, but with a pitch-perfect consideration for the rhythms of life and how to convert them in all their splendour and mundanity into cinematic prose. What is all the more special is that he stays well out of frame himself, allowing his subject to speak for itself.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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