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Frederick Wiseman on ‘In Jackson Heights’ and Finding Meaning Through Editing

Frederick Wiseman on 'In Jackson Heights' and Finding Meaning Through Editing

On October 23, Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary, “In Jackson Heights,” screened in the eponymous Queens neighborhood at PS 69, the same place where it was filmed. The non-fiction feature showcases the incredible diversity of the Queens neighborhood, which is home to immigrants coming from all corners of the globe. The screening was put on for that same community and in attendance were Jackson Heights residents and guests of Council Member Daniel Dromm, who is featured heavily in the film. Wiseman and Dromm were also both in attendance, and Wiseman introduced the film and appeared for a conversation after the screening.

READ MORE: Frederick Wiseman’s ‘In Jackson Heights’ Explores One of the Most Diverse Neighborhoods in the World

According to Wiseman, the genesis of this film occurred back in 2007 when he had the initial idea to make a film about the neighborhood. Before he got started, however, he was given an opportunity to make a film about the Paris Opera Ballet (“La Danse”) and, according to the filmmaker, “The allure of Paris was greater than the allure of Jackson Heights.” More opportunities branched out from there, and it took seven years and four films to return to the project and to the neighborhood.

The documentary comes at what seems to be a transitional time in Jackson Heights, and much of the film centers around small business owners and their struggle to remain in the neighborhood against the impending gentrification and skyrocketing rent prices. One audience member thanked the filmmaker for capturing a neighborhood that she believed would not exist 15 years down the road. That fear is reinforced by the fact that the Business Improvement District proposal, presented in the film as a major threat to small business owners, is now going through. It’s a heartbreaking reminder that the best efforts of these well-intentioned people are no match against the interests of big business.

When asked about the impact he hoped his work would have in regards to the problems represented in the film, including the struggles immigrants and the working class are facing in an ever-changing Queens, Wiseman responded that as a filmmaker he has no political message in mind. However, the images and statements in the film itself could certainly be used to that end. “I don’t make political films in the sense that they’re advocacy films,” he said. “If anybody wants to use the films for a political purpose they can make of it what they will. My point of view is expressed in the film.”

The fact that he begins with no particular end in mind is no indication that his voice isn’t present in his films. When an audience member used the word “anthropology” to describe his filmmaking style and asked how he keeps himself out of the process, Wiseman simply responded, “I don’t keep myself out of it.” He pointed out that in the editing process, in which hundreds of hours of footage must be condensed into one three hour film, everything is the result of a choice on the part of the filmmaker. On a shot to shot level and on a structural level the film is constructed based on the his own ideas.”I don’t know much about anthropological filmmaking,” he said. “For me, the models are more literary than anthropology.”

Although “In Jackson Heights” runs a little over three hours in length, there were still things the filmmaker had to leave out. Wiseman had over 120 hours of rushes to work with captured over an 8-week shooting period in which he and a cameraman went to public spaces and public buildings gathering footage of whatever they found (he rarely goes into people’s homes, feeling that would be “another kind of film”). In one surprise moment, they found a Southern Baptist volunteer group cleaning up trash on the sidewalk, and while they were filming a woman approached the group to ask for a prayer for her dying father.

These are the kind of moments that Wiseman only hoped to capture on camera, but when considering the daily interactions between 166,000 permanent residents, the filmmaker admits “quite a lot is left out.” He described filming a documentary as the “filmmaker’s Las Vegas,” rolling the proverbial dice in going out to collect footage and then creating meaning out of that footage through editing. He described the filmmaking process as a discovery process, and one of coming in with only a general idea and finding the themes of the film along the way.

One thing that was left out was the relationship between the police and the community. However, in this case, it was not the result of the filmmaker’s choice, but the fact that he hit roadblocks with the local precinct. The filmmaker described trying to get access to police, specifically to meetings regarding community outreach, but he remarked the the police are less present in the film because of their “refusal to participate.” The police appear in a violent clash with a crowd during a World Cup celebration and as the subjects of the “Cop Watch” program.

Regardless, Wiseman’s attempts at capturing a community in full pay off in his three hour examination. Few communities will ever receive an exploration as thorough or sensitive as what Wiseman does for Jackson Heights, and the audience at the event was clearly appreciative of his directorial efforts. “In Jackson Heights”  opens in select theaters on November 4.

READ MORE: Frederick Wiseman on How to Stay in the Business of Making Movies for 50 Years

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