In Jackson Heights (Dir. Frederick Wiseman) 2015.

This portrait of a community in Queens, New York prominently features its City Council representative Danny Dromm.  The film opens with his commemoration of the Julio Rivera annual march in honor of a gay man killed twenty five years ago because of his sexuality. The meeting takes place in the Jewish Center, a central location for other meetings, such as the one for a Senior Gay and Lesbian support group where arguments are made about where to hold their meetings.

At Danny Dromm’s district council office, telephone workers take complaints about the sudden appearance of a homeless shelter which apparently was necessitated by an emergency lack of housing for a bunch of people who could not go anywhere else.

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Daniel Dromm

Wiseman treats us also to meetings of transgender support groups, employment groups who have a beef about why they were treated unfairly, threading salons, mani pedi shops where you see close ups of women’s toes getting trimmed.  This last follows quickly after we watch live chickens  being killed, plucked, and processed for sale to Halal customers. Expert editing includes quick sequence of toenails of humans next to toenails of chickens being tossed into the bin.

One of the central themes of the movie is the impending gentrification of what is mostly a working class neighborhood.  We watch grandstanding political leaders who want to fight against the Business Improvement District.   What BID means to the government according to their literature: sanitation and maintenance, public safety, marketing, beautification and capital improvements to an area–compared to what it means to the people whose leases are not being renewed: more big box stores, nowhere to re-establish your business, being edged out of the community in favor of the upper class and rich.

A laundromat is the stage for an impromptu concert of percussionists who in the beginning play tiny instruments that clang, and in rhythm, people wait for their loads to dry and wash, bounce to the beat, but by the time they have taken to the cymbals which crash and don’t tinkle, ears are plugged. Music amplifies the feelings of working class people trying to maintain their dignity in a quickly eroding economy that favors the rich.

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Always there are the faces of people, listening, talking, responding, engaged in everyday life.  They are largely Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, South American.  An Islamic ritual with all boys is followed by an Islamic school at first with just boys, then just girls, all wearing head scarves, as they learn the verses of the Koran.

In response to a question during an immigration problems support group whether they had experienced any difficulty getting over the border, one woman explains at length how her daughter was lost in the desert for fifteen days without food or water while her two children had already gotten to the other side.  I became very familiar with the Latino phrase muy difficil which when translated can mean, very difficult, strenuous, arduous, burdensome, or hellish.

At a day care center for old folks, one 98 year old woman describes her situation as having no one, and if she could only walk, she would give her brain to be able to walk, it’s just her foot, but people call her every Wednesday, not Thursday or Friday or Saturday, only on Wednesday, and talk to her for five minutes.  Not that they could not do it any other day, that’s the only day they will.  They don’t call her any other day.  She is alone.  She was happy until her husband died.  A woman in a big hat listens to her and says but you have money, why don’t you buy a friend.

Wiseman locates the people who are instrumental to maintaining the essence of a community.  He finds them, and focuses on them, and listens to them even when listening should stop, because it does not make for good cinema.  But after the movie is over, you take away the essence of something in a way no other filmmaker is doing.  He is giving credit to the show boaters, the truly talented, the politicians, the quiet women who one day stand up and say something articulately in a way no one else has but is a huge relief to everyone.  In other words, he records what real life is like.  It contains multitudes.  We are human.  Wiseman captures that rare thing, that to be human is to be flawed and magnificent all in one breath.

A scene from Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS, opening November 4 at Film Forum. Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

 

 

 

 

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About Patricia Markert

Moviegoer.
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