Acclaimed director Frederick Wiseman has explored many different types of places in the 53 years since he directed his first documentary. He has made films about everything from hospitals to boxing gyms, and shot them in places as eclectic as New York City and the small town of Monrovia, Indiana (a film partially inspired by his visit to the IU Cinema in 2017). I have always been interested in his vast body of work, but I had never seen one of his films before watching his most recent one.
That film, City Hall, is a grand tapestry of the city of Boston that focuses on its government officials. Some viewers might be put off by its length — 4 hours and 35 minutes assembled from 104 hours of footage — but Wiseman (who also edited this movie) finds a fascinating rhythm that will leave even viewers with short attention spans riveted. This rhythm is partly due to Wiseman’s hypnotic intercutting of long sequences of government events and functions with shots of Boston locations.
Wiseman’s style of filmmaking perfectly suits his subject because it is so democratic. Mayor Marty Walsh emerges as a protagonist of sorts, but Wiseman lovingly devotes detailed time to depicting such everyday moments as people watching a Red Sox game or trash collectors doing their job. Mayor Walsh may be a key figure in many scenes, but Wiseman never lets you forget that it is only possible for a city to exist because of a large group of people.
City Hall would be a remarkable film at any time, but it works especially well as a corrective to what has been happening on the national level of the American government over the past four years. At a time of national division and corruption, Wiseman’s portrayal of government officials calmly and competently helping people by doing their jobs reminds us that there are better alternatives to the brand of politics practiced by the Trump Administration.
Even a simple scene of a lesbian couple getting married at City Hall carries political overtones due to the recent confirmation to the Supreme Court of a woman criticized by both the defendant and plaintiff of the Supreme Court case that made gay marriage legal.
There are a lot of moments in City Hall that are going to stick with me for a long time. One of them comes during a community meeting that Mayor Walsh attends. As he finishes his speech, he tells his constituents that “[i]f you see me in the street, grab me and tell me what the problem is” that they are facing. It’s a sign of the humility and openness that make him such an appealing mayor, but also an articulation of the philosophy that guides the film. The government is beholden to the people; it argues and exists to serve them. But it can only work if people effectively communicate what they need. It is a brief yet beautiful description of the contract between democratic governments and their citizens. The entirety of City Hall is an argument that the contract of democracy is something for which it is worth fighting. If you watch City Hall, you’ll want to fight for it more than ever.
City Hall is currently available to stream in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room until December 9 as part of the International Arthouse Series. A percentage of the proceeds from this streaming engagement will directly support IU Cinema.
Director Frederick Wiseman was a previous IU Cinema guest in 2017 when he participated in our inaugural Filmmaker to Filmmaker Series event, paired with filmmaker Robert Greene.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.