Frederick Wiseman isn’t interested in generalities. For decades, the now 85-year-old master of American documentary has been weaving nuanced, dramatic narratives from the multiplicity of ordinary human experience — without once purporting to have any of the answers.
Long heralded, and rightfully so, as “cinema’s master analyst of institutions” — social, cultural and communal — Wiseman has dedicated his ever-patient gaze to the observing of, in his own words, “human activity and behavior in a wide range of limited contexts and encounters.” He films people, as they work, learn, worship and live within the boundaries of institutions, be they linked by a single building or amorphous geographical location. In his films there are no conventional narratives. No guiding voiceovers. No talking head interviews. Rather, he presents thematically and visually connected happenings — a mosaic of living complexity as he tries to understand it.
On the occasion of his latest, In Jackson Heights, the 42nd film of his career, Wiseman’s curiosity led him to the Queens neighborhood of the title and to the colorful entanglement of laundromats, tattoo parlors, bakeries, clothing stores, mosques, temples and churches that polka dot the community’s main commercial artery. Here, the new America waves its flag. Under the clatter of the elevated tracks of the 7 train, more than 160-odd languages are spoken, and people from every country in Central and South America as well as India, Pakistan, Thailand, Nepal, Tibet and Bangladesh live and fight to flourish, side-by-side.
As in his other documentaries, In Jackson Heights brilliantly suggests the intricacies of the area’s political and social tapestry. It raises open-ended questions about cultural and religious differences, gay rights, immigration, tradition, assimilation, and encroaching gentrification.
On a recent Saturday morning, I shared a telephone conversation with Wiseman to learn more. He discussed being a perpetual student, his secret to securing permission from subjects and his career avoiding even the suggestion of simple-minded solutions.
Nonfics: I had a good chuckle reading your director’s statement regarding the film wherein you refer to yourself as an “alleged adult making documentary films.” Do you consider yourself a perpetual student?
Frederick Wiseman: I do. It’s true. I mean, I said it as a joke, but it’s true. In a sense that every time I make a film, I have a new subject and I start off not really knowing very much about it and in the course of making the film, I think I learned something about it. Not everybody may agree with that. But, that’s part of the fun of doing it, is studying. And I use studying non-ironically. I have something new to study every time I make a film.
Would you say that sharing a film with an audience and getting eyes on it are almost secondary then to nourishing and satisfying that personal wonder?
I have no idea how to think about an audience. Because those that do, it’s just a fantasy. I mean they may be right. They may be wrong. But it is a fantasy. How, when I am editing, can I anticipate that you might see the film? I know nothing of your background, your interests, your history, your age, etc. The only way that you can think about an audience is to dilute the material to meet some fantasy of the lowest common denominator, and that has absolutely no interest for me. One, I don’t know how to do it. And two, if I knew how to do it, I wouldn’t want to do it. I mean I have enough trouble figuring out what I think of the subject matter, let alone to begin to think how somebody in Sweden who might see the film five years from now might think about it.
And certainly with diluting material of any sort, the biggest disservice is not only to the audience, but moreover to the subjects.
The best service one can do to subjects of a film is to show, to begin to show the complexity of their experience. I don’t know that I ever show it in all its complexity, but certainly I make an effort to suggest the complexity. Otherwise, people can be deceived into thinking that there are simple-minded solutions.
It’s a reflection of my general view. I like novels that are complicated. I guess I was brought up and educated to try to think in terms that provide some real analysis on a subject and not in ideological or simple-minded, cliche-ridden approach.
Do you have a habitual way into process or does each film dictate a different point of entry?
In the general sense, yes. Shooting is collecting sequences but I have no idea how I am going to use those sequences. I really have no idea what the point of view of the film is going to be. It’s just that I gamble that the subject is one from which I will be able to find a film. Shooting, in this case, I got 120 hours of material and it took me 11 months to put it together.
The editing is the analysis. Fifty percent of editing has nothing to do with technique. It has to do with deluding yourself, to some extent, into thinking you’re understanding what is going on in a sequence. And if I don’t think I understand what’s going on in the sequence, I can’t one, decide whether to use it, two, figure out how to edit it, and three, determine where to place it.
But are those moments of frustration were the real oxygen is for you on this?
Sometimes I get frustrated, of course. I mean I don’t always come up instantaneously with what I consider a good solution. But, I’ve done it enough and I find those moments particularly interesting. If I don’t get it, if I’m stuck, if it’s not working, then I take a walk or take a nap or you know, go do something else and then come back to it. You make or break a film in the editing.
And it’s a roll of the dice with every start of a new project?
With every movie. I never start with a thesis or theory or point of view or ideological explanation.
Going back to the education thing you mentioned earlier, of course, I hope it works as a movie, but the film is also a statement or a report of what I have learned as a consequence of making the movie.
What brought you, then, to explore Jackson Heights?
Well, I was interested in a question of new immigrants to America since America is a country of immigrants. Chance brought me to Jackson Heights because I have a friend that lives there and she told me a little bit about the community and I went there and walked around. I thought it was visually interesting. You know, the stores are in all these different colors. The reds and yellows. And people are wearing different clothes than you see in midtown Manhattan or downtown Boston. I was particularly interested in how people from all these different cultures and religions lived and worked together in a relatively small area. Jackson Heights is only about 300 square acres.
So, that was the idea. I was originally going to do the film in 2007 and I got sidetracked because the opportunity came up to do the Paris Opera Ballet [La Danse] and I was afraid that permission for that might disappear. And I found myself in Paris and so I stayed in Paris for a while. I did some other movies and plays there. Then in the spring of 2014, once I was done with another film, I went back to Jackson Heights and decided to do it.
As a Queens native, I marveled most that you captured not only the visuals of the neighborhood, but much to my enjoyment, the sounds.
I’m glad you mention that. The sounds are amazing. The subway. The ambulances. The cars. The music coming out of the stores.
Absolutely. Sounds of soccer and baseball games from open windows. I also appreciated that you showed the community, on so many levels, taking care of its own.
Yes. It was interesting to discover all the grass roots activism in the community.
Interestingly, we never meet any of the adversaries in the film. There are no evictions on screen. The migras doesn’t show up. Nor do we see the arrival of gentrifiers. That all happens offstage, if you will. You opt to just let the daily routines and happenings speak for themselves.
I understand what you mean and that’s right. Well, it’s partially offstage because I simply didn’t have it. I didn’t have any sequences with that. But it is certainly implied. That sort of thing would be more likely treated in a film that was narrated or where there were interviews.
And you’ve found that seeking permission — whether from individuals or institutions — is largely easy to come by.
You simply ask?
Yes. That’s my big secret. I simply ask.
Even in those more delicate situations, say for instance when filming the faces of those that are undocumented within the community, permission is still pretty easy to come by? The particular scene in the film that comes to mind is where the woman tells the story of how her daughter was lost on the frontera for 15 days as she tried to cross the border from Mexico into the United States.
No. No. Even then. That took place at Make The Road New York which is a very good advocacy organization. They have meetings on different issues five nights a week, whether it’s on immigration or job discrimination or housing or ID or whatever. That story, that woman telling that story just popped up. The subject that night was how people came to America. The leader asked for stories and this woman got up and told her story. In that situation, the group leader just announced at the beginning that a movie was being made and if people objected, they should say so.
In the overall, then, that sort of trust is achieved through your no-bullshit, take it or leave it, you’re-in-or-you’re-out kind of approach?
Yeah. And it is rare that anyone refuses.
Do you ever need for someone to vouch for you upon initial entry into an institution?
Sometimes, but not always. That sometimes helps in you initially getting permission.
Like when I did Welfare, a friend of mine knew the Commissioner of Corrections. I got introduced to him and he liked the idea of the film, so it made it easy to get permission. Similarly, a friend of mine knew the Superintendent of Education in Philadelphia, so I got access to the high school in Philadelphia [for High School] that way. So, that happened on a number of occasions, but not on every occasion. On many occasions, I just called up the head of an institution or have written them a letter and asked permission.
Council Member Daniel Dromm — Is he possibly the closest thing to a reccurring subject you have ever inched towards?
You know, I didn’t even meet him until a couple of weeks into shooting. I met him initially only because I thought I should show some suggestion of local politics in the movie. So, I got in touch with him and he was very cooperative, said I could shoot in his office and follow him around a bit. The sequence of his assistants answering the phone and where he and a group of other people are talking about the schools was all shot in one day.
I wondered if you had an arrangement with him or if he just kept popping up in your travels.
Well, actually, yes. He also just kept popping up. Well, not quite. But, for instance, in the sequence in the beginning of the film, where he is making a speech in honor of Julio Rivera, and he is listing all the countries of the people in the neighborhood. That was in the Jewish community center. And the guy that runs the Jewish community center told me that there was a meeting of a gay rights group that day. The birthday party sequence, Dromm’s secretary told that he would be talking there. I also knew that Dromm was active in the gay right’s parade and that there is big LBGT community there, I wanted to shoot the parade, and he was in it.
Each story leads into another.
That’s right. That’s just it. One thing leads to another.