‘City Hall’ Film Review: Frederick Wiseman Celebrates the Power of Civic Engagement


Nobody makes documentaries quite like Frederick Wiseman. He doesn’t interview his subjects; he doesn’t provide on-screen identification for who’s talking; he doesn’t use any non-diegetic music. What he does do is plant the viewer firmly inside what “Hamilton” calls “the room where it happens,” taking us deep inside the heart of the hospitals, the department stores, the city governments, the public libraries, the boxing gyms, the art museums, the burlesque houses, the hospice facilities, and all the other institutions he has examined over the course of a storied career.

His 45th feature film “City Hall” — premiering at the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals prior to a release later this year — goes deep into the workings of the city of Boston, a much larger and more populated location than the subjects of earlier Wiseman works like “Belfast, Maine” or “Monrovia, Indiana.” It’s clear that even this new film’s four-and-a-half running time can only scratch the surface of such a multi-faceted subject, but Wiseman’s camera takes in as much of the title entity as possible, in terms of both the literal building and its figurative outreach.

The unifying force of the movie, besides geography, is mayor Marty Walsh, whom we encounter in various internal meetings (with police higher-ups, with Latinx city employees) and out and about, whether it’s at a Veteran’s Day event, a Chinese New Year parade, a senior citizens’ luncheon, a rally supporting nurses, or Thanksgiving events promoting food banks and Goodwill. (At a dinner for clients and volunteers of the latter, he makes a speech and then circulates the room pouring gravy for diners.)

While there’s always a sense that Walsh is enough of an innate politician to always be aware of Wiseman’s camera without ever acknowledging it — even in more intimate settings, he always talks like someone making sure he can’t be misquoted — he brings a real personal touch to the job, whether he’s relating to those veterans and their need for counseling and outreach by sharing stories of his own recovery from alcoholism or saluting those nurses by remembering how much he and his family relied on the kindness of the profession when he battled cancer as a child.

There’s plenty going on without Walsh, though; the film begins and ends with more direct liaisons between city government and its constituency — the 311 non-emergency operators. Within the walls of city hall, we get to sit in on planning meetings, see couples get married, observe traffic management via close-circuit cameras, and watch people talk their way out of parking tickets. We also get images that reflect the city’s rich diversity, from skyscrapers to the legendary harbor, from historic houses and buildings (some restored, some not) to sun-beaten nail salons.

And while one of the throughlines of Wiseman’s career has been a fascination with process, he’s less interested in culminations; there are plenty of conclaves here with hard-working city employees seeking to find solutions for Boston’s homeless population, for instance, but “City Hall” never circles back to tell us how successful those solutions were, or even whether they were ever implemented.

That’s not the story that Wiseman wants to tell. He’s more interested in exploring the mechanics of institutions we know well, even ones that will directly impact our day-to-day lives, but he would rather viewers pick up the baton and get involved themselves rather than to sit back and judge or even summarize.

Wiseman’s movies demand that we make our own conclusions, and they also demand that we adjust ourselves to his method of non-fiction storytelling. His rigorous use of stationary camera and long takes (he edits as well as directs) require a different but no less intense level of engagement as a more personal or more pop style of documentary filmmaking. What Wiseman does is different than most contemporary docs, but he does it so well that his films are consistently engrossing and informative. For a time capsule of what people did at their jobs, and what their surroundings looked like while they were doing it, Wiseman’s filmography is one for the ages.

Granted, the most fascinating moment in “City Hall” is also the most confrontational one, as residents of the working-class Dorchester neighborhood attend a town-hall meeting with entrepreneurs who want to open a cannabis dispensary there. Bringing up issues about everything from parking and sidewalks to providing opportunities to minorities in the neighborhood who have served prison time for selling the very same drugs, the residents are informed and impassioned, refusing to accept the slickly-packaged promises and happy-talk from the retailers without some verbal pushback.

And that direct engagement is the point. Just because Wiseman isn’t narrating or making direct statements, it doesn’t mean there’s not a point of view at play here; it’s apparent that the director champions governmental institutions and community involvement in an age where reactionaries are still trying to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub and to make individual citizens feel hopeless and cynical about their elected officials. Much like “Monrovia, Indiana” and “In Jackson Heights,” this is a story of America in the age of Trump; Walsh mentions the president in passing, as the functional opposite of the ways that the mayor and other city employees are trying to be welcoming and inclusive to immigrants, ethnic minorities, women, the poor, the LGBTQ+ community, and other populations at risk of losing advances made over the last 60 years.

One may or may not be able to fight city hall, but “City Hall” argues that it’s incumbent upon all of us to be involved with local politics, which can directly and indirectly shape what’s happening at the state and national level as well. It’s a civics lesson that’s subtly delivered within some thoroughly exciting documentary filmmaking.

10 Best Documentaries of the 2010s, From 'OJ: Made in America' to 'The Invisible War' (Photos)

  • Best Documentaries 2010s

    Facts are so often stranger than fiction: The truth can be so terrible that we struggle to believe it, or so joyous and full of life that we’re inspired or moved. The past decade has seen a boom in the documentary space as streaming platforms have invested in their production and proliferated their distribution opportunities. So many docs that could have made this list, from those that have inspired public policy changes to others that captured gorgeous slices of life often overlooked, and even a few that pushed the visual boundaries of what’s possible in non-fiction storytelling. Here are a handful of the best documentaries from the previous decade:

  • 10. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” Alison Klayman’s documentary may have been many Americans’ introduction to Ai Weiwei, the outspoken artist (whose work has found a devoted following on social media) and whose voice that the Chinese government has threatened to silence more than once. Not only does Klayman’s extensive film retrace many of the highlights in the artist’s career; she also uses his story as a case study of the pressures artists in China face when standing up to the country’s authoritarian government.

  • 9. “The Invisible War” Years ahead of the #MeToo movement, director Kirby Dick and co-writer Amy Ziering burst open the topic of sexual assault in the military with their painfully honest and eye-opening documentary. In “The Invisible War,” multiple members of the armed forces detail how they were assaulted or raped by fellow soldiers or commanders and how they felt victimized a second time by the army’s failure to take action. In addition to picking up an Oscar nomination, the documentary was so effective in its mission to raise awareness of the issue that the Pentagon responded by overhauling how it investigates and oversees cases of sexual assault.

  • 8. “O.J.: Made in America” You can argue over whether Ezra Edelman’s multi-part episodic documentary qualifies as television show or a film (the Academy gave it a Best Documentary Oscar before creating new rules that would make it ineligible), but Ezra Edelman’s comprehensive look at the rise and astronomical fall of one of pop culture’s most celebrated athletes was a riveting event for many viewers. In addition to rare archival footage and numerous interviews, Edelman’s film also put O.J. Simpson’s life into historical context, connecting the dots as to why the sports star would often play down his blackness to appeal to white audiences in the 1970s and examining the various responses to the “trial of the century” in the 1990s.

  • 7. “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” Skipping conventional storytelling approaches like using a narrator or including a series of talking-heads interviews, RaMell Ross chose a nonlinear route for his feature debut. Through evocative footage and observational shots, Ross creates a portrait of the black community of Hale County, Alabama, that’s like few other documentaries. His camera is more of a free-floating spirit through the area, quietly observing the nuances between different groups and individuals at the intersection of race and class. Even with its experimental nature, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” earned an Oscar nomination.

  • 6. “This is Not a Film” Forbidden by the Iranian government from making a movie, directors Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb record Panahi on an iPhone as he’s stuck at home under house arrest. At its core, the documentary is a protest film, a tool for discussing the limitations of persecuting artists in the country while defying the government’s orders by making a documentary. Politics aside, “This is Not a Film” also has a very day-in-the-life quality as it follows Panahi through stories about his previous works while as he prepares to stage future projects within the confines of his home.

  • 5. “Dawson City: Frozen Time” In 1976, the small northern town of Dawson City unearthed an unlikely treasure trove of rare silent films in various states of decay. Decades later, Bill Morrison artfully composed fragments of these movies with other archival material and photos to tell the story of this town in a remote part of Alaska and the number of famous (or infamous) souls passed through it over its history. The found silent-movie footage from nitrate prints that survived the area’s harsh winters underground vary in their state of decomposition, but Morrison incorporates these so-called damaged works into the narrative.

  • 4. “I Am Not Your Negro” Raoul Peck connects an unfinished James Baldwin novel about the murders of three of his friends who were leaders of the civil rights movement — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. — to the present-day protests of Black Lives Matter in a visceral documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Incorporating interview footage and letters, Peck conjures up Baldwin’s insightful voice to echo the works of years ago, a haunting reminder of how far equality has yet to go in the struggle against racial discrimination.

  • 3. “The Grand Bizarre” At no point is there a singular character to follow or voice-over narration to guide us. Instead, Jodie Mack’s dazzling stop-motion animated documentary just washes over its audiences with a fury of colors, patterns and textures of materials from around the world. This inventive documentary explores heady themes of globalization, mass production, cultural identity, travel, commerce and connectivity through the journey of several fabric swatches as they traipse around the world in immaculately arranged configurations, accompanied by Mack’s playfully evocative score. Borders and barriers fall away as the materials come to life.

  • 2. “Cameraperson” Kirsten Johnson steps out from behind the camera to become the subject of her own moving documentary about her work and life outside the frame. Her memoir-doc includes home movies of her family alongside a number of movies she shot throughout her career, including “Derrida,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Happy Valley,” “Citizenfour” and “Very Semi-Serious.” It’s a delicate balance between the Johnson audiences have come to know through her work and the person whose life exists outside the camera that’s taken her to all these corners of the world.

  • 1. “The Act of Killing” Shocking. Stomach-churning. Joshua Oppenheimer and an anonymous co-director uncover the humanity and the monstrosity behind some of the men who led death squads during Indonesia’s war against Communists. Using the guise of creating an extravagant movie about the men’s life stories, “The Act of Killing” gets its subjects to reveal dark secrets and dredge memories so awful, it makes them physically ill. They may never face the consequences for their actions, but this wildly fascinating and disturbing documentary captures perhaps one of the strangest confessions ever on film.

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Decade in Review: “The Grand Bizarre” and “Cameraperson” rank among the highlights of the decade

Facts are so often stranger than fiction: The truth can be so terrible that we struggle to believe it, or so joyous and full of life that we’re inspired or moved. The past decade has seen a boom in the documentary space as streaming platforms have invested in their production and proliferated their distribution opportunities. So many docs that could have made this list, from those that have inspired public policy changes to others that captured gorgeous slices of life often overlooked, and even a few that pushed the visual boundaries of what’s possible in non-fiction storytelling. Here are a handful of the best documentaries from the previous decade:

Story first appeared at TheWrap.com

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