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Showing Their Efforts: Frederick Wiseman Discusses "City Hall"

Frederick Wiseman talks about his latest film, a sprawling portrait of Boston's "City Hall."
Demi Kampakis
Throughout his nearly 60-year career, legendary nonagenarian filmmaker and Massachusetts native Frederick Wiseman has devoted himself to peeling back the layers of every corner of civic life, no matter how obscure or wonky. From healthcare to housing to community activism, Wiseman’s intimate and inquisitive lens leaves no stone unturned.  With his latest film City Hall, he takes us into the public spaces where policies are made, community is fostered, and municipal life chugs along in the city of Boston. Clocking in at four-and-a-half hours, City Hall represents one of Wiseman’s more lengthy endeavors (and that’s saying a lot), but each minute feels just as absorbing as the next.  Despite the unglamorous nature of local governance, scenes in which we’re privy to personnel discussions, city council meetings with impassioned constituents, and one-on-one interactions between citizens and city workers, provide the most fascinating and humanist moments, precisely because they’re so lived-in and consequential in their quiet banality. 
The most heartbreaking of these one-on-one exchanges occurs later in the film, when a PTSD-addled veteran discusses the rodent infestation in his home, and it becomes clear just how neglected his home and his mental health have become from landlords and the healthcare system, respectively.  It’s humbling to watch as this man, who clearly struggles to make ends meet, wavers between confiding in a stranger for solace, and remaining proud, stoic and in affable spirits despite the obvious cracks that show, and the lonely suffering they belie.  The same goes for an overwhelmed first-time father, a broke and desperate young man who we meet as he’s contesting the parking tickets he’s received. His flustered anxiousness to see his newborn at the hospital clouded his judgment and made him park in the wrong spot.  Yet none of these moments feel didactic or heavy-handed. 
When one considers the inane ineptitude of many of our elected leaders today, seeing an American city actually do what it’s supposed to, however flawed and full of shortcomings the bureaucratic process may be, feels nothing short of radical and wholesome. At the same time, it is precisely because of our turbulent political climate that an appetite for a more radicalized view of American politics becomes necessary—and unfortunately, City Hall’s celebration of Mayor Marty Walsh’s brand of neoliberalism and reform doesn’t quite meet the urgency of the moment.  The same goes for the film’s rather misplaced trust and naïve faith in establishment politics, which, aside from a few inadvertent overlaps, always has its own agenda distinct from that of working people (at some point, business as usual doesn’t quite cut it anymore).  Nonetheless, with this film, Wiseman once again fashions a slice-of-life mosaic that reminds us of the humbling, multifaceted and mundane rhythms of municipal politics (and the very real domino effect that even the most dull proceedings have on people’s lives and welfare); the precious and fragile dynamism of the social contract; the vital necessity of social programs designed to help the most marginalized; and the textured diversity of city life.
I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Wiseman (after having interviewed him in 2018 for Monrovia, Indiana) in the lead-up to City Hall’s Film Forum release, and having already established a rapport with him, I was able to more confidently pick his brain—even challenge him in some respects—and what resulted was a casual, in-depth conversation with topics ranging from our views on policing’s role in communities to whether there’s a place for compassion and mercy within an indifferent and imperfect system.

NOTEBOOK: When I last interviewed you for Monrovia, Indiana, I remember you saying that film was part of an institutional series. Do you see your last three films, In Jackson Heights (2015), Monrovia and now City Hall as constituting a discrete institutional trilogy of sorts? Did you know going into Jackson Heights that you would be creating a thematic trifecta but just weren’t sure of the specific subjects you would use, or is this totally incidental?
FREDERICK WISEMAN: No I didn’t.  My decision to do each film was independent of the other films. I wanted to do a film about the day to day functioning of a city government, but I do not see it as a trilogy with Monrovia or Jackson Heights.
NOTEBOOK: Even though you didn’t have this in mind going into City Hall, do you think there was some kind of subconscious awareness of the difference in bureaucratic scale among the three films?  Jackson Heights, for instance, focuses on borough politics, Monrovia on an incredibly small farm town, and City Hall sheds light on a modestly sized city’s government.
WISEMAN: Well yes, but I would also include Belfast, Maine (1999) and Aspen (1991), because these are also small towns that I filmed.  I also see City Hall as being linked to other films of mine in the sense that some of the subjects of those other films have been aspects of departments that are managed within city halls. Law and Order (1969), for example, which was filmed in 1968 Kansas City, was about the Kansas City police. In City Hall, there are illustrations of the police reporting to the mayor, and the mayor indicating his policy for police community relations.  There are discussions of affordable housing that are linked to Public Housing (1997).  Some of the meetings about welfare are linked to Welfare (1973). In Belfast as well as Monrovia, the city or town council meetings are associated with similar sequences in City Hall and the decisions Boston’s mayor Marty Walsh has to make.  So there’s a definite relation between City Hall and some of the other films that I’ve made.  And certainly Jackson Heights would be included, because the coalition that Mayor Walsh put together included many of the racial, ethnic and immigrant groups within Boston’s government.  In the community meeting on the location of the marijuana store, for instance, there are a diversity of community groups attending—similar to the community meetings in Jackson Heights.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of community, your films really have a ground-level focus on day-to-day policies and civic engagement, and the effects that closed-door or boardroom decisions have on peoples’ everyday lives and on the streets.  In our last interview, you said that you don’t strive to make your films political but that sometimes subject matters are inherently political.  Using the example of Ex Libris (2017), you noted that because Trump doesn’t read, he kind of hovers in the margins of a film about a library. What strikes me about your films is that they’re the most apolitical political films, so how do you separate the politics from day-to-day governance?
WISEMAN: Well, in a sense Trump made this film political.  Yes, it is a political film to some extent because it shows an elected mayor performing services that he was elected to perform.  But the contrast between Mayor Walsh’s attitude towards helping people and Trump’s attitude is extreme!  Trump doesn’t care about anyone else; he wants to minimize help to the poor and the elderly, destroy public housing, social programs, public school funding and Obamacare (among other services), he doesn’t care about any of that, and Mayor Walsh does.  The contrast is there because Trump poses it; he is cruel and indifferent whereas Mayor Walsh cares.  And he is certainly a hidden presence in the film.  If I had made this exact movie when Obama was president, some might say; “well, Walsh and Obama are two good politicians trying to help people.”  But Trump’s idiocies underline Walsh’s competencies. 
NOTEBOOK: He certainly functions as the anti-Trump in many respects, a kind of foil who provides a glaring juxtaposition. Do you see your films, particularly this one, as a corrective to the electoral nihilism, disillusionment or apathy that citizens might feel towards government, and a reminder of the importance of down-ballot voting?  
WISEMAN: I always think it’s important to show people doing a good job when they’re doing it.  It’s just as important to show people doing a good job, as it is to show them doing a terrible job.  When I made Titicut Follies (1967), the guards and the administrators at the Bridgewater facility were terrible!  Not to mention that the state wasn’t providing funding for services to the inmates who were there.  Bridgewater was a horrible place, but on the other hand, my impression of Mayor Walsh and the people working with him was that they really care, and they were trying to reform, and offer the best services possible to the people of Boston.  Similarly when I did Near Death (1989), the doctors and nurses at Beth Israel were fantastic in the way they were tuned into the dying people and their families.  The same went for the doctors and nurses at the Metropolitan Hospital in New York, they worked 20 hours a day while providing devoted care and services to the hundreds of thousands of clinic and emergency work cases that passed through the hospital at that time in the spring of 1968.  I think that’s just as good a subject as showing people doing a bad job, and I like the idea of people trying and showing their efforts.  I like to make movies about competent people doing their work.
NOTEBOOK: There’s definitely a kind of earnest good faith in government that’s seen and even celebrated in the film, and as you said, it’s heartening to see public servants who actually care, and successful policies actually being enacted as well as progressive strides being made.  However, because of the "decaying" nature of American institutions, there’s necessarily going to be some insufficiencies—that affable veteran living with a rodent infestation, or the kindly folks disputing their unjustifiable parking tickets come to mind, as they were really at the mercy of one individual public servant.  One such bureaucrat for instance, noted that technically he shouldn’t forgive the parking ticket (which was callously issued given the constituent’s circumstances and financial desperation), but that he will let it go.  So in these moments, justice really comes down to not so much systemic progress as much as one bureaucrat’s compassionate discretion.  Throughout the entire film, in fact, there’s a tension between the impersonal remove and inefficiencies of red tape as well as the system’s lingering failures, with the strides being made in government.  Can you talk about that?
WISEMAN: I thought it was great that the man in charge of the traffic tickets exercised good judgment!  The ticketing officer did not know the circumstances of the parking violation.  The hearing officer realized that this young man in front of him was anxious about the birth of his first child, and he took that into account.
NOTEBOOK: Do you fear though, that for every kind-hearted public servant doing a good deed, there are several who just go by the book no matter the circumstance?  
WISEMAN: Well, I can only report on what I find.  What you say is possible, certainly.  If I had to generalize about the people working at city hall, I would say by and large they care!  Are some of them indifferent?  Of course.  But by and large, most reflect the mayor’s commitment to providing as many good services as possible.  I’m in no way idealizing them and saying that people don’t make mistakes because of course they do, we all do.  But they were working in an atmosphere that encouraged them to use good judgment.
NOTEBOOK: Despite these positives, one theme that stands out in City Hall, as with In Jackson Heights, is the disparity and the tension between the community’s interests, and those of the establishment or of neighborhood developers.  There’s a scene where one constituent voices concerns at a meeting about the funding that goes towards the NAACP without transparency, as opposed to the community having a say in how those funds are allocated.  Can you speak about these themes of gentrification, of some of the aesthetic or commercial benefits of neighborhood real-estate development, but also its alienating downsides?  That scene in particular has a very palpable anti-establishment murmur to it.  
WISEMAN: In that scene, you see the woman getting to voice her criticisms of the neighborhood developers, but then you also hear the developer’s rationale for what he did.  The scene also poses the question as to who speaks for the community.  The same issue is illustrated in the marijuana scene, where people are expressing different points of view.  Some of the black residents and new immigrants from Cape Verde, for instance, had one view of the police and of the presence of a marijuana store, whereas other groups of people represented different views.  This scene, like others, raises the question of how these issues are resolved, which necessarily require people to make compromises.  The result will not satisfy everybody of course, but it seems to me that when there are conflicting views, the basis of good politics is figuring out how to compromise in a peaceful way. 
NOTEBOOK: One thing I noticed as the film went on, is its shift from a greater focus on boardroom meetings, public engagements and civic gatherings to an emphasis on one-on-one interactions; like with those parking ticket disputes, or when the veteran is discussing his mental health with the rodent exterminator.  Was that shift something that came together during filming or editing?
WISEMAN: The latter.  When I’m filming I have no idea what the themes or the structure will be in advance, and the structure only begins to emerge after many months of editing.  
NOTEBOOK: Were there any scenes or institutions that had to remain on the cutting room floor?
WISEMAN: No, usually I include everything I think I want to use.  
NOTEBOOK: During our last conversation you had said that you like to cast a wide net to show a variety of human behavior.  With each film you make, do you discover different aspects of humanity?
WISEMAN: Oh, yes!  Sure, I mean in each film you see people in more or less different situations than in previous films.  Although there is some overlap, the scenes are never the same.  You see people request services, and you see people try to provide those services, whether successfully or not.  I like to think I learn something new with each film, and what I’ve learned is what you see in these films.  
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of honest truths about human behavior, is this why you have a particular affinity for lingering in moments, so that you can eventually hit a kernel of truth or vulnerability—or do you just like giving these moments room to breathe?
WISEMAN: Well I don’t know really.  What I have to do during editing is study the material.  I don’t necessarily know what’s going to come of the moment, so I may choose to linger or cut it at a certain point depending on the reaction a scene instills in me.  I may choose to draw out that reaction or not.  You study each sequence and try to figure out what the message might be and how to best express that.  I have to think I understand what is going on in a sequence in order to know whether or not I want to use it, how to edit it and where to place the sequence in the final structure.
NOTEBOOK: Were you conscious during filming that to some extent, Mayor Walsh might’ve been performing for you, knowing that there were cameras present during otherwise closed-room meetings?  Is that something that crosses your mind when you’re privy to these bureaucratic proceedings?
WISEMAN: Not really, because Mayor Walsh gives four speeches a day.  Many of them (though not all) are covered in the media, but I think he’s used to talking to an audience, and I don’t think my presence affected what he said.  My situation is no different than yours during an interview, if you think someone is bullshitting you, you sort of adjust to it.  And if I think someone is putting it on for the camera, I stop shooting—or if I don’t realize it until the editing process, then I just don’t use that footage.  The problem rarely arises.  I filmed Mayor Walsh in a variety of situations, and I didn’t get the impression that he was acting for the cameras.
NOTEBOOK: In our last interview you had talked about 1968’s Law and Order, and how despite the film necessarily painting police as “pigs” to some extent, it was important for you to communicate how that brutality isn’t uniquely inherent to police, but to general human nature—how everyone holds the capacity to be a pig, and because of this, the role of police is necessary to society.  Given the historic uprisings that we’re seeing today, and the shifting attitudes towards policing in America, have your opinions on the role of police in communities shifted as well?   
WISEMAN: To the extent that my attitudes have shifted, I think that Law and Order illustrates what the issues are.  On the one hand, police have to have a monopoly on the use of violence because people can’t settle scores among themselves.  On the other hand, sometimes police do terrible and brutal things, as you see in Law and Order for instance, in the treatment of a woman accused of prostitution, or the way a suspect’s head is banged against the hood of a police car.  At the same time, you also see police doing kind things in the film, when they rescue a lost little girl or when they recover a woman’s lost pocketbook.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene where police have no idea what to do about a man who wants to visit his child because his ex-wife is living with someone else and he doesn’t get to see his kid.  There are frequent situations in the movie where the police have to act as social workers and they’re simply not trained to do that.  
So the idea of training people with different skills, to go with police as they respond to these calls, is extremely good.  The idea of completely defunding the police is ridiculous because in any community there is violence and the potential for violence.  Take the scene towards the end of Law and Order, when the cop goes into the clothing store, and there are two gun-carrying kids who are clearly about to hold up the store.  The cop goes in with a rifle (which is no good, he should’ve gone in with a pistol), and I remember when we returned to the police car afterwards, the policeman’s hands were shaking!  It was a very, very dangerous situation.  So do I think police are necessary?  Yes.  Do I think they’re asked to perform lots of functions they’re not trained for, and would be better performed by other people?  Yes!  And if defund the police means using some of the money that goes to police in order to train social workers and skilled community workers to respond alongside the police, I think that’s a terrific idea—and I think the film shows this.  I don’t think Law and Order is a pro-police or anti-police film, it shows the police doing some good things and some terrible things.  
NOTEBOOK: We had last talked about how your films embody the existential tension of just day-to-day existence and survival, the daily grind and quotidian human experience.  Towards the end of City Hall, Mayor Walsh talks about the fragility and vitality of democracy, which is of course incredibly crucial.  Conversely, given our country’s veer towards authoritarianism, these threats to our democracy hover and loom over the film.  Given the incredibly existential election coming up, do you see City Hall as being particularly fraught with existential tension, compared to your previous works?  
WISEMAN: I’m not sure I know what existential tension means exactly, but I think because of the situation in America now, and the horror of Trump’s presidency, which presents a very real threat to democracy, I think the film underlines how democracy functions, and how it works.  The film makes clear the choices people have, whether they want four more years of Trump, or if they prefer their city, state and country to be run by somebody like Mayor Walsh, who is trying to do a good job and is responsive to the needs of his citizens.  So to put it in your terms, I think that is an existential choice.
City Hall is currently showing in virtual cinemas across the United States.


InterviewsFrederick WisemanLong Reads
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