Jun 122016


In Jackson Heights is the 42nd film from 85 year-old veteran American documentarian, Frederick Wiseman. Filmed over 9 weeks in 2014, the film paints a portrait of a vibrant, diverse community in flux. Gentrification is lapping at the doors of the largely immigrant neighbourhood, and big business is squeezing out the small.

Jackson Heights is located in northwestern Queens, New York City. It’s one of the city’s most diverse neighbourhoods, with upwards of 50% born outside of the United States. As the title suggests, Wiseman’s documentary puts you ‘in’ Jackson Heights, immersing you in various aspects of the community. As per Wiseman’s observational style, there are no interviews or commentary from the director, instead we are invited to simply watch, listen, and think.

In watching the film, what became apparently was how proud of the neighbourhood many residents are, and the difficulties they face at preserving it. One of the key issues highlighted by the film is the implementation/development of the Business Improvement District, which would see businesses paying a special tax to help fund infrastructure in the area. While this may sound reasonable in theory, landlords were using it as excuse to put rents up, and corporations were using it as way to “encourage” smaller businesses out. Here we see that although the neighbourhood may want to keep its community feel, it has the forces of gentrification and commerce to battle against – forces, that may prove too strong.

Chickens being slaughtered, council employees taking calls from frustrated residents, birthday parties, prayer meetings, taxi driver training school, live music at launderettes, Gay seniors meeting, LGBTQI marches, and Copwatch – Wiseman’s camera shows a neighbourhood teeming with culture, colour, and community involvement. There are so many different community groups shown in the film, some bound by a commonality such as age or job, while others were gathered to discuss events or developments in their community. I live in a built-up inner city community, but I have never attended a community group event or protest. I am not sure if it’s because I am satisfied or apathetic, possibly both. The community involvement shown in the film is extremely admirable – people power still means something.

With In Jackson Heights, Wiseman has given us a portal into this community for a little over 3 hours. We are allowed to peek behind the curtain, and see some of the mechanics behind the colourful neighbourhood. While the camera shows the people are facing challenges and hardships, it overwhelmingly shows a group of people who feel that they are part of a community, something which is increasingly rare in urban Western society.  

By Sam McCosh

The Facts

Director: Frederick Wiseman
Country: USA
Language: English, Spanish, Arabic
Runtime: 190 minutes