Few communities are more culturally rich than the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, which boasts some 167 spoken languages, a strong LGBT presence, and some of the greatest restaurants in the city. Frederick Wiseman, the 85-year-old director of observational documentaries (whose narratives are never forced with on-camera interviews, but merely suggested through motifs and editing), turned his camera on Jackson Heights for about nine weeks, during the summer of 2014, to capture the neighborhood’s diversity and the looming threat of gentrification.
The resulting three-hour-ten-minute film, In Jackson Heights, is among Wiseman’s most compulsively watchable: It’s brimming with color and tension, harmony and impending discord. We see scenes as disparate as footage of the Queens Pride Parade, an eyebrow threading, community meetings from and about a dying mall, prayer at a mosque, and an impromptu concert in a laundromat.
All the while, Wiseman’s interest in humans remains affectionate and unyielding. I’ve spoken to the director twice before this, and will continue to do so for every film that he makes. A condensed and edited transcript of our chat by phone this week regarding In Jackson Heights appears below.
Gawker: Why Jackson Heights? What led you there?
Frederick Wiseman: I was interested in making a movie about new immigrants to America. I’d read a lot of books about the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century. My father was an immigrant from Russia in 1885. It just seemed like an interesting subject, and a friend of mine lived in Jackson Heights and she took me around. The moment I started walking around there, I knew I wanted to make a movie. It’s so colorful. There are so many different colors. It’s very different than Manhattan, or at least the neighborhoods in Manhattan that I know. That interested me, and the mixture of people from all over South America, all over Asia, East Asia. I wondered how they were getting along and what relationship they had to their country of origin and how they were getting along in America. I didn’t really know anything about the subject. I hope I learned something.
I used to frequent Jackson Heights with my ex—there was an Indian restaurant there I liked that has since closed. But I didn’t realize just how diverse that neighborhood was. One hundred sixty-seven languages spoken? That’s unreal.
It’s unreal, but I think there is a Jackson Heights-like neighborhood, maybe not as dense and not as intense but similar, in almost every major city in the West now. Not immigrants from the same place, but the Turkish immigration to Germany or North African Muslims’ immigration to France or the Syrians and Iraqis in Europe or Central Europe. The countries of origin may be different, and the languages may be different, but the day-to-day issues of getting along in a new country are similar.
A Frederick Wiseman movie couldn’t be more different than a six-second loop on Vine, but nonetheless this movie struck me as incredibly modern, per the current call for diversity in media and hearing underrepresented voices. Was giving voice to the voiceless one of your concerns?
No... I’d like to say that was my original goal, but it wasn’t. I think that’s one of the things the movie does, but I didn’t set out to do that. I set out to make as good a movie I could based on the experience I had in Jackson Heights. I never set out with an idea like giving voice to the voiceless. That’s a bit too general and I would worry that for me it might seem pretentious. I make the choice of subject matter, hang around, collect a lot of rushes, and try to figure something out based on the rushes.
More and more, I read critiques admonishing outsiders for portraying and covering communities they are not part of. Throughout your career, you’ve been an outsider to your subjects.
I don’t prevent anyone else from making a movie!
Is there an advantage to being an outsider?
I think there can be an advantage to being an outsider because you see everything as fresh. At least 50 percent of editing one of these movies is figuring out what you’re watching. What is it you’re listening to and seeing and what significance does it have? That has nothing to with film technique, it has to with your general experience. Whether or not I’m right in my assessment of what’s going on, I have to have a view as to what is going on in each sequence both on a literal level and a more abstract level, because otherwise I can’t decide whether to choose the sequence, and then what to choose within the sequence, and then where to place it. So I have to at least delude myself into thinking I understand it.
Do you speak Spanish? There’s so much Spanish in this movie.
No. I speak French. I couldn’t understand [Spanish] with any degree of sophistication, but, for example, in the scene where the woman describes the trip with her daughter across the border, I got the gist and I knew it was a good scene. So when we shot at Make the Road New York, they had meetings every night at 6 or 7, and it was always on a subject like immigration ID, housing discrimination, job discrimination, etc. The meetings lasted about an hour, an hour and a quarter. I just shot the whole meeting and then what I did was have a transcript made in Spanish and then had the transcript translated. For the first time in my life, I used a transcript to edit. There was another step involved.
Yeah. A lot of it is chance and luck. For example, the scene where the woman asked the group of Southern Baptists to pray for her dying father [outside on a sidewalk], I happened to hear these women with their Southern accents, and wondered what they were doing cleaning the streets of Jackson Heights. We were already shooting that and then in the midst of it, this woman comes up and asks the ladies to pray for her father. That’s an extreme example of chance.
For other things, I developed informants in the best sense of the term, and people know more about the place than I do. Someone introduced me around in the East Asian community, and the guy that ran the Jewish Community Center, which is no longer used exclusively as a synagogue or for Jewish-oriented events, because the Jewish population of Jackson Heights is so small, so this place gets rented out. So one day it’ll be Brazilian Pentecostal services, the next day senior gay rights meeting, another day an elderly women’s meeting. God knows what. Because I met this man who ran it, he gave me the schedule of events and I asked the people running the meetings whether we could shoot them. Similarly, I called up the Catholic priests and told them what I was doing. My East Asian contact put me in touch with the halal butcher. The taxi scene, for example, I was just driving close to the corner of Roosevelt and Broadway, and I saw this sign: Taxi School. I’d never heard of a taxi school, so I stopped and went in and asked, “Can we shoot a class?” He said, “There’s one beginning in 20 minutes.” That’s how I got the taxi school. It’s a combination of judgement, luck, and instinct, and then trying to figure out the best way to use it.
Did anyone say no?
No. I don’t think there was one person. Occasionally, one or two people say no, but it’s extremely rare.
There’s a huge motif in not just this movie, but many of your movies, of people watching people. And it’s through your gaze that we watch that. It’s a rabbit hole.
It is. It’s not unrelated to Alice in Wonderland.
The fundamental philosophy there is that people are fascinating.
That’s exactly right. In one sense what I’m doing is a form of natural history. I hope the films have a dramatic narrative structure, but in another sense, they’re movies about the way we live now. Historians 100 years from now, if the world is still revolving, are going to be more confused about the past, because in addition to drawing on written records or traditional artistic records, there are all these movies they’re going to have to look at. I would love to watch a movie about Washington during the American Civil War or have a movie about a plantation. All that’s possible now—not specifically about subject matter. What documentary does, if the negative or digital or HD master survives, is it leaves a trace of the past.
Had you ever done anything with this strong of a gay theme in it before?
No. I had no idea when I started that there was such a large LGBT community in Jackson Heights.
What was it like to be an 84-year-old man holding a camera in the middle of a gay bar, surrounded by strippers and loud music?
[Laughs] It was fun! It was really funny. It was interesting. It was bizarre. But it was fun!
Do you just blend in? It seems like in a situation like that, a camera might be in the way?
It’s odd. I still don’t understand how you can make these kind of movies in the sense that nobody ever objects. Someone told me that was an interesting gay bar. I went in, found the owner, who was an older man that was sitting in the back. I told him what we were doing, asked him if we could shoot in there, and he said, “Sure.” The people in the bar had no objection.
You got releases?
I don’t get written releases? I get tape recorded consents.
For everybody in there?
No, I get consent of the owner, and everybody sees that you’re shooting. If they don’t want to be shot, they can say something.
How precious are these movies to you on an individual level? You’re always working on one. How emotionally attached do you get?
I work so hard getting the editing done that by the time the color grading is done, I don’t want to look at it anymore. It took me about 11 months to edit Jackson Heights. I could recite the dialogue by heart and the order of the shots. Usually by the time the grading is done, I start thinking about something else. I like to keep busy
I think a lot about the economics of movies because I watch a lot of them. Hollywood movies are often a litany of compromises as much as they are a string of scenes.
How have you been able to do this for 40 years and feed yourself? I assume you make a pretty good living...
I make an adequate living. I’m not rich. I make a living because I try to make one movie a year. I own the movies outright, so I get income from ancillary rights: DVD, VOD, foreign rights, etc., though there’s not much of a market for foreign rights anymore. I get invited to give talks at colleges. You can make more money talking about a movie than making it, but you gotta make the movie in order to talk about it. So I make a decent living out of those three things. But it’s hard to raise the money. It was very, very difficult to raise the money for Jackson Heights.
So how do you do it?
Ultimately, I was saved by the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation has been extremely generous to me over the years and they came through for Jackson Heights.
If you were greedier, you wouldn’t be able to make movies like this?
What I’m interested in is getting enough money to make the movies. What I’m interested in is having the resources to continue to work. It has to be a commercial enterprise, because a movie has to pay for itself, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, in which case the costs are paid for by other things that I mentioned. I work quite hard, and I like doing it. The money thing is the worst part of it, but you gotta do it.
If more people had your attitude, movies would be better.
I never understood why people spend so much money on movies. $50 million, $100 million. The production values aren’t that much better.
In Jackson Heights is now playing at New York’s Film Forum.