Seen at the IDFA, Amsterdam, on 29 November 2015:
‘In Jackson Heighs’, the new documentary of Frederic Wiseman, opens with muslims praying in mosques, garages, sheds. Welcome to Queens, New York. On the last day of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2015 I went to see the three-hour movie in a cinema at the Muntplein. Great movie! In Jackson Heights, a multicultural neighborhood in Queens, more than 170 nationalities and languages live closely together: Colombians, Mexicans, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, you name it. This district in the outskirts of New York City is far more divers than the whole of Amsterdam. The film is about diversity, identity, immigration, city life, politics, gentrification, empowerment, democracy. Democracy not at the federal level, or at the state level; not even at the city level – we see the mayor, Bill de Blasio, speaking only once, at the opening of the Gay Parade. This great American urban democracy is a democracy at the ward level: a struggling open democracy of immigrant people building their own communities from the bottom up. I think the sociologist Robert Putnam is wrong. After seeing this documentary we should be far more optimistic about social cohesion, inclusiveness and the future of democracy, in big cities. Even though all these people – mostly former illegal immigrants – live in their own communities, they are learning to live together somehow.
After reading the article of Richard Brody in The New Yorker of 3 November 2015 I wanted to see Wiseman’s view on globalization. In ‘Finding the American Ideal in Queens’, Brody warns it is a non-spontaneous documentary, a documentary by design. “What Wiseman found in Jackson Heights is people talking, mainly in organized, formalized settings that have their pretext and their agenda defined. He finds civic life taking place in public and quasi-public places—houses of worship, stores, storefront offices of non-profit community organizations, and local governmental offices, including the storefront office of the neighborhood’s City Council representative, Daniel Dromm.” Sure. So is it still alive? Brody: “Wiseman’s subject is political life in the most classical sense—the polis, the life of the city—and his emphasis on urban dwellers’ struggle for a part in the political process, his vision of what surpasses the boundaries of the self-defined community and reaches far beyond local neighborhood, is the idea of equality under the law, fair treatment by the law—in short, the political ideal of the United States.” Nothing wrong with that. So we can be hopeful. And it is a bottom-up process within a more or less fair constitution, in a great metropolis.