Big Screen Berkeley: Wiseman’s ‘In Jackson Heights’

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In Jackson Heights, Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary, opens in Berkeley Friday

Three hours, eight minutes and thirty-one seconds: that’s the amount of time you’ll devote to In Jackson Heights (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Dec. 18, the new feature from documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Is it a worthwhile investment, or is it one of the legendary director’s occasional snoozers?

Happily (and in spite of its epic running time) In Jackson Heights falls into the ‘worthwhile’ camp. If there are several million stories to be told in the naked city, Wiseman’s film gives a handful of them a thorough airing – and while some are more interesting than others, there’s enough variety here to keep viewers engaged.

Located to the south of La Guardia Airport in the borough of Queens, Jackson Heights is a half-hour subway ride east of Manhattan – but culturally, it’s a world away. Home to an incredibly diverse community of 100,000 plus, it’s claimed that 167 different languages are spoken there. Its geographic proximity to Manhattan makes the area a prime target for gentrification.

Indeed, In Jackson Heights spends considerable time on the threat posed by a BID (Business Improvement District) to small Hispanic businesses in the area. Promoted by big-money interests from the other side of the East River, the BID gives Wiseman the perfect opportunity to provide viewers an eye-opening (and suitably lengthy) lesson in the nuts and bolts of ‘urban renewal’. (Brief reference is even made to the Willets Point redevelopment project depicted in 2011’s excellent Foreign Parts).


Roughly half of the neighborhood’s residents are Hispanic, but Spanish is only one of Jackson Heights’ 167 tongues. We’re also introduced to the area’s older white and Jewish residents (the local synagogue seems to skew particularly elderly), its many South Asian immigrants (who appear to be primarily Bangladeshi and Indian), and others – including a considerable gay and lesbian population.

Indeed, the area is home to a well-established Pride celebration and is represented on the City Council by gay Democrat Daniel Dromm. Wiseman also spends time with the transsexual residents of the Heights, who are seen protesting discrimination at a local restaurant and mistreatment at the hands of the police.

Shot during what looks to have been a long hot summer, the film doesn’t present Jackson Heights as some sort of liberal, multicultural heaven. As diverse as it is, there are still tensions above and below the surface – though by and large, it looks like most folks in the area are happy to ‘live and let live’.

Everyone’s mileage is going to vary considerably over the course of a three-hour documentary, but for me In Jackson Heights features two major highlights: the aforementioned economics discussion, and in the film’s waning moments, a comparatively brief segment shot in a classroom full of aspiring taxi drivers. Buoyed by the instructor’s outgoing personality, it’s a section of the film that could easily go on longer than it does.

Squeamish viewers should be aware of a brief segment in a halal slaughterhouse, but I was more disturbed by some particularly gruesome podiatry footage. When the chickens (or the toes) show up you may want to take a bathroom break or fill up on popcorn. At three hours plus, you’ll probably need to do both at one point or another!

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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