By Lenore Skenazy
As if it wasn’t enough that the Lonely Planet recommended it as the No. 1 tourist destination in all of America this year, along comes the world’s leading documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, to make an entire film—a three-hour film—about Jackson Heights.
Wiseman debuted his movie at the New York Film Festival on Sunday night, and stayed to answer questions, beginning with, “Why Jackson Heights?” His answer: “Because it’s the most diverse place in the world.”
It also happens to be where I live. So perhaps you’re wondering what it is like to see so much of your own neighborhood on the big screen—its people, food stands, puppy groomers, Hindu temples, jazz musicians, taxi driver teachers, 98-year-old jokers and, in the one scene that will make its way into every film class for the rest of the century, its live chickens as they go in a matter of minutes from cage to knife to de-feathering vat to being sawed into chicken parts?
Frankly, it is appalling, And at other times (and other scenes), it is exhilarating. Sometimes it is hilarious, sometimes it is embarrassing and sometimes—too many times—it is boring in the way that real life can also be arm-gnawingly dull.
A veteran of 40 films, Weisman is known for making the proverbial fly-on-the-wall type of documentaries: no narration, no explanations, no captions except for translations. The scenes speak for themselves. So when he drops into a cramped mosque where the Imam is chanting Ramadan prayers, all we know is that this is a local place that, for many of us, has been off-limits. Then he shows us the faces of the men there—some intense and mournful, but some just plain sleepy—and slowly this “other world” starts to feel familiar. Maybe you’ve never been in a mosque. But you’ve probably been in a religious service at some point in your life, and you have probably seen (or felt!) those same emotions.
Likewise, when he wanders into an eyebrow threading salon and watches a worker plucking out facial hairs with the speed of an AK47, there is something familiar about her, too. She is as focused as a surgeon. The exotic, once again, becomes a little less so.
That, to me, was what was so embarrassing about the movie. As a gal who lives here and likes to feel I really know my neighborhood, the shameful truth is that I’ve poked my head into only a tiny fraction of the places Wiseman sallied into. He takes us into belly dancing classes and transgender support groups. Gay bars and straight bars. A Holocaust memorial. A conference call in Councilman Daniel Dromm’s office. He even gets up close—very close—to the tough toenails being clipped at a mani-pedi salon. I don’t think I’ve ever looked that closely at my own toenails, much less a stranger’s. There is nothing that Wiseman isn’t curious about.
The church just two blocks from where I live—the fantastically beautiful St. Joan of Arc—is filled to capacity for services in Spanish, with a priest who is simply enthralling. But I don’t speak Spanish and I’m not Catholic, so I’d never wandered in. Wiseman is not a Catholic and he doesn’t speak Spanish, either. But he filmed the heart-soaring scene there, complete with, once again, a sleepy parishioner.
Like a great painter, Wiseman highlights the humanity in all his subjects—including, sometimes, the human capacity to drive people crazy by talking too much.
This is what will keep some viewers away from Wiseman’s film: He counterpoints his fascinating chunks of daily life with stupefying meetings.
A community meeting about commercial rents. A community meeting about age and sex and gender, transgender, economic, gay, ethnic discrimination. A community meeting where participants discuss, at length, where to hold the next community meeting. Then another and another and another. Most of these seem to feature one speaker who gets up, takes the microphone, and then manages to ignore all the other people in the room as they start sighing, fidgeting, and finally being barely able to remain polite as the minutes tick by.
To be able to sit through those meetings is perhaps the biggest testament to Wiseman’s heart. They’re part of the fabric of Jackson Heights life, and he wasn’t going to miss them. Though, frankly, I’d rather watch a toenail trimming.
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.