Architecture on Film: In Jackson Heights + Frederick Wiseman Q&A

The latest work from legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman masterfully dwells within the complexities of community and place in an ultra-diverse Queens neighbourhood.


07:00pm, Tuesday, 22 March 2016


11:00pm, Tuesday, 22 March 2016


Cinema 1
Barbican, Beech Street, London EC2Y 8AE



AF Members:
£7.50 (Please contact AF for promotional discount code)


Young Barbican:

Tel (9am-8pm):
+44 (0)20 7638 8891

This is a past event

In Jackson Heights

The latest - 40th - film from legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman masterfully dwells within the complexities of community and place in Jackson Heights; an ultra diverse Queens neighborhood, home to 167 spoken languages and radically changing socio-economic forces.

We are delighted and honoured that Frederick Wiseman will join us in person following the screening, to discuss his work with Charlie Phillips (Head of Documentaries, The Guardian).

[Frederick Wiseman's] sustained acts of attention to various places, institutions and social phenomena constitute one of the great monuments of modern filmmaking… Mr. Wiseman is an artist. His shots are carefully composed and painstakingly edited into assemblages that reveal the layers and patterns of experience. His movies are not raw transcripts of reality, but artifacts and representations, at once abstract and laden with content.
– A.O. Scott, The New York Times

The film's depiction of the realities and interface of immigration, real estate, democracy and business capture the neighbourhood as an ecosystem, the complexity of the American Dream, and Jackson Heights as a place on the brink of imminent change – as Manhattan's sprawl impacts ever greater the culture and life of the community.

A poetic and incisive work of observation, investigation and empathy, In Jackson Heights, which currently has no UK distribution, was voted one of the 10 best films of 2015 by publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times and Slant, and won Best Non-Fiction Film at the New York Film Critics Circle's 2015 awards.

USA, 2015, Frederick Wiseman, 190 min


Programme Notes by Charlie Phillips

In Jackson Heights is an unfashionable documentary - over 3 hours long, loose narrative rather than full-on impactful story, no main characters as we might ordinarily know them. There’s no intervention from the filmmaker, no voiceover, long scenes of wordy discussions. It’s a two-fingered salute to the rush and push of most contemporary docs, and even the pace of contemporary life itself. In Jackson Heights is a documentary about New York’s most ethnically-diverse neighbourhood, and the pressures that threaten it. It’s also about the dignity of everyday life and how multiple communities can become a singular one, whether they think of themselves that way or not. That kind of unforced, spontaneous chaotic community feels very modern. It’s difficult, it defies class, race, even gender. No easy boxes to put people in. Making a film about that without trying to ‘make a point’ or spoon-fed easy-to-understand impact is modern, and it’s complicated.

A review of In Jackson Heights on the Ebert blog states “It's hard to write about ‘In Jackson Heights’ without sounding like you're trying to write poetry.” I’m not saying I am, but I do know that like a poem, it’s hard to define what the film is about because it’s about so much – things so fundamental to our sense of humanity, community and place. Across 40 films Wiseman has demonstrated a uniquely intuitive way of getting to the heart of people and place – whether listening to his protagonists talk about the ground beneath their feet, or just simply observing them being present, silently, in the area they call home. Many of his characters feel heroic – but Wiseman doesn’t deal in heroes, he deals in people doing what they do and surviving. Amongst Wiseman’s many unrivalled skills, the greatest is that in his work we don’t feel we’re watching a movie, we feel we’re in the place itself. We’re next to the old gals talking about their lives over lunch. It’s a privilege to have such close access.

The typical view is that Wiseman’s films are about institutions, buildings, physical and social structures. I don’t think they are - they’re about humans. Messy, strange, dignified humans, and the places that they thrive or survive in. Unlike many of Wiseman’s classic docs (Titticut Follies, High School, Zoo, La Danse) Jackson Heights is a subject that isn’t contained within walls. Some of the locations have them - the politicians’ offices, the businesses, the community centres, the places of worship. But Jackson Heights is different ground for Wiseman - it’s a place bounded only by hazy municipal boundaries and sky. It’s a place where identity and place itself are both guarded by, and guardians of, the human imagination. Where the LGBT centre should be, whether the Synagogue can survive - these aren’t just questions about physical space, they’re questions about where the imagination and identity can be housed. The oppressive forces threatening this place exist where this imaginary realm meets economic realities – the euphemistic BID (Business Improvement District) scheme that pressures local businesses to pay up or sell up, Manhattan’s sprawl.

Jackson Heights is a special kind of place, 167 languages spoken, its definition coming from a spirit guarded carefully by these who live in it. Those in Jackson Heights might not be wealthy, but they know what it means to be a JH resident or not. This is an architecture of community, of civic identity. An idea like this seems almost laughable, sitting watching this film in gentrified Inner London, where almost all areas like Jackson Heights have been obliterated, the architecture of money triumphing over that of community. Wiseman’s doc eloquently captures the push and pull of urban progress and pressure, reminding us of the political potential of resistance. This isn’t detached observation, this isn’t cinema verite, this is a question posed: what should the JH residents do? What’s their power as a collective? Wiseman’s skill is not to poke us in the eye until we understand, or to offer us his own answers, it’s to treat us as viewers with minds and complex understanding. Those on screen are complicated and dignified, it’s a political and controversial act these days to assume the same of your audience.

So it’s over to us to interpret, to decide what we think might be right for Jackson Heights. We’re right in there on the streets, in the town hall meetings, in the parades - in case you didn’t get it yet, this is In Jackson Heights, not Regarding Jackson Heights. Never fear though, you won’t be overwhelmed, there’s great fun to be had, living for three hours IJH. An entertaining cab driver class, a celebration of an older community hero, Joe (with glorious detail like his annual bedding of flowers), Colombia winning at the World Cup, the perils of being the Council administrator who can neither agree nor disagree but simply listen, amazing fruit and veg displays, the tinkle of an ice cream van. Small joyous Queens moments of wit, one of the crucial ingredients of being alive. Their counterpoint is present too - the aged wondering why they’re alive, the boredom of a long meeting, the fears over losing your business. We’re there for it all, we’re on the streets, we’re popping into buildings, and then we’re out again.

Everyone’s talking about the immersiveness of Virtual Reality in my world at the moment, I think Wiseman cracked true immersion years ago through the linear single screen, and here we are again. How can you look away for a moment when a woman tells the story of her family attempting to cross the border into the US from Mexico? That scene could be 10 minutes, it could be 20, you’d keep listening for as long as it took. This is storytelling; live, real close-up storytelling.

Good luck Jackson Heights, you’ll be in our hearts forever.