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Review: Frederick Wiseman's "In Jackson Heights"

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman peers into the beating heart of urban transformation in New York, resulting in one of the year's best films.
The United States is often described in its history, especially its early 20th century history, as a “melting pot,” but the feeling of it being a dense, perplexing mix of cultures, ethnicities, religions, nationalities and languages is something that has, except for on the margins, escaped American cinema after the mid-1930s. Yet this overworn idea and its potential for overwhelming sensation washed over me while spending time in Frederick Wiseman’s kaleidoscopic immersion into the most diverse neighborhood in the United States, Jackson Heights, in New York’s Queens borough.
If you aren’t a New Yorker familiar with the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and peoples of the area, the opening to In Jackson Heights, one of the most important American films of the year, might seem like you’re entering a different country. But indeed this dynamic collection of people—as the local New York city council member Daniel Dromm names them in an early scene: Colombians, Dominicans, Jews, Irish, Dutch, German, Bangladeshi, gay, straight, and more—all live together in a neighborhood far more indicative of the New York of old than the vast, condensed swathe of Manhattan that now resembles an outdoor luxury mall. This mall—the other boroughs are offscreen spaces only talked about in the film, never seen—is the predominant threat to the neighborhood in fact and in symbolism, as rampant urban corporate capitalism encroaches deeper into the boroughs. (In this way, in the film Jackson Heights stands as a metonym for Queens, which stands for New York, and that for the United States.) Despite its gloriously saturated color photography, a crowded sense of desperation pervades much of the documentary, which spends the majority its time with self-selected community members who decide to participate in or contribute to the startling varied communities in the neighborhood—local government, several gay rights groups (Dromm is gay and is seen as a major part of the LGBT identity of the area), a brilliantly comedic taxi school, an immigration assembly, a small business owners gathering—speaking with pride at what they have done or are able to do in America, but also all set on bettering their positions and generally defending their identities and lifestyles from the both vague and specific forces threatening them from outside the neighborhood.
As such, Wiseman’s generous, exploratory film, which ducks into shops, hangs out at meetings and wanders through parades, feels like a gasp of fresh cinematic air, the revelation through this microcosm of the deep range of peoples—what they wear, how they talk, their concerns, their spaces, their work—that populate America but are mostly seen as the victims of tragic news stories rather than the very people who are a continuation of what defined the America “of old” and in fact are today shaping the America of the future. At the same time, this very exposure seems another tactic in colorful definition by the neighborhood intended to stave off the beachheads of Gap, Dunkin’ Donuts, Home Depot, luxury condos and other named-checked effects of the New York City's Business Improvement District initiative. Is the film an explosion of cultural vibrancy or the shrinking throes of a besieged community? Wiseman’s thoughts may be found in the film’s chilling final lines, spoken by a local during a meeting at the Make the Road community center: “Here we have traveled the entire world. No matter if you are Chinese, American, Dominican, Colombian, Argentinian… we see all the countries here [...] when a person wants to steal money from their workers, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if they are from his country or family. If his heart is set on making an extra dollar on the worker’s back, he will.” The film ends, after this, on a beautiful old song and fireworks over the neighborhood, but I’m not sure what they are celebrating.
 
A modified version of this review originally appeared in our coverage for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

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