Documentary director Frederic Wiseman: How Society Works – Culture

A hair salon in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, is the scene of heated debate around a shopping mall. The former tenants, convenience stores, will make way for a hardware store and a branch of a coffee shop chain. The redesign is part of the quarter’s creeping improvement. American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman filmed a shot of the neighborhood in “In Jackson Heights” in 2015.

For a good three hours, he combines spontaneous and planned meetings in laundries, parlors, and beauty parlors to create an image of a community reacting from below to changes at scale. “Jackson Heights” is the latest film for the roaring Weizmann, which Arsenal is showing as part of 21 retrospectives for the now 92-year-old.

Wiseman made his debut in 1967 with the movie “Titicut Follies” about a psychiatric facility in an American correctional facility. Until the 1990s, his films were intended for institutions in the health and social systems and the prison system. At the end of the 1980s he expanded his subject world with Central Park. Now showing a series of selfies of public places and people congregating there.

In 1997, Wiseman photographed “Public Housing” by Ida B. Wells Homes in Chicago, a notorious housing project of over 1,500 homes. The film alternates between scenes of the state’s access to the population by police and social welfare institutions and elements of self-regulation. In the opening scene, Helen Wiener, head of the Population Council, searches by phone for an apartment for a young mother and her child. The young woman makes her way from sleeping to sleeping so she doesn’t end up on the street.

Wiener talks angrily about homelessness and job vacancies at the same time. Anger increasingly manifests itself as the film progresses. There is no shortage of problems. Unemployment and homelessness as well as drugs characterize apartment blocks. But the only practical help that residents receive is the extermination of cockroaches in the apartment.

State work and self-regulation

The Wiseman movie was filmed five years before Ida B. Wells’ homes were demolished. The juxtaposition of state action and the self-organization of civil society indicates a transition in Weizmann’s work from images of institutions in the direct style of cinema, which were more focused on the scope of work in clearly defined frameworks, to more open interactions.


In 1975 Weizmann’s “Luxury” focused on everyday life at the New York City Department of Welfare. From the right, the hostess tries to comfort and calm Valerie Johnson, while to the left, an elderly lady throws a farewell sermon over her shoulder to the employee behind the desk. Johnson fights back tears, poses herself briefly and then begins describing her problem to the employee.

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Through the chatter of voices, Kafka’s tale of miswriting of addresses and Social Security numbers unfolds. “This is me, this is me,” the young woman declared when the file was finally found. But even the document does not solve the bureaucratic knot. Weizmann described his work in the New York Times at the time: “”Welfare” is about people’s relationship to power and how that power is exercised, which determines the kind of society in which people live.”

(until May 29 at Arsenal Cinema)

In the 55 years that Frederic Wiseman’s work has spanned (his latest film, City Hall, about Boston City Hall shown at the 2020 Venice Film Festival), a polyphonic picture of American society has emerged. Not only are the films a challenge because of their three to four hour length, they also force you to create your own connecting lines through the lack of commentary audio. In a 1970s interview, Wiseman said, “The one thing that fascinates me about all films is the question of how to make general and abstract statements about the themes of the films, not through the narrator, but by putting the events in the montage side by side with one another.” “

This renunciation of the commentator is a design element whose contrast with Ken Burns, for example, the other great contemporary American documentary filmmaker, can best be identified. While Burns’ work chronicled the liberal self-image of America, Wiseman’s films are an exploration of society from the fringes. Wiseman’s cinematic work is permeated with the desire to understand something about the society they form through interactions between people.

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