Documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s “City Hall” examines the inner workings of Boston’s titular institution. Zipporah Films/Puritan Films

Frederick Wiseman – the legendary documentarian whose latest cinematic opus, “City Hall,” has just begun streaming through PMA Films’ “virtual; video store” – has a singular vision, even if his films haven’t always been easy to see. For a long time, Wiseman’s universally lauded examinations of subjects as diverse as the treatment of the institutionalized mentally ill (1967’s still-shocking “Titicut Follies”) to the public library (2017’s “Ex Libris”) were screened infrequently, or not at all. 

The infamously independent, now 88-year-old Wiseman only started putting some of his works on DVD about a decade ago through his own, tiny Zipporah Films company. That was too late for customers of my former home, the late, lamented, similarly independent video store Videoport. People would ask for them (because both Videoport and its customers were outstanding), but Wiseman’s films simply weren’t available, unless you traveled to an infrequent festival screening or an ambitiously daring local art theater. 

I say “daring” not necessarily in reference to the films’ content. Wiseman’s documentaries can usually be identified by his signature prosaic titling. (The subjects of movies like “Zoo,” “Central Park,” “Boxing Gym,” “Public Housing” and the 1999, of-local-interest “Belfast, Maine” all show, as they say, what it says on the tin.) What’s so ambitious (some would say daunting) about booking – or watching – a Frederick Wiseman film is the director’s style. After spending weeks accumulating hundreds of hours of raw footage of, in the case of “City Hall” – the workings of Boston’s city government under the ambitiously engaged leadership of current mayor Marty Walsh – the director edits his films according to a rigidly principled set of rules. No narration. No interviews. Indeed, no presented, overarching reason to make the film at all, instead crafting a portrait of his subject that emerges with sometimes maddening patience.

“City Hall” is four-and-a-half hours long. In it, Wiseman films everything from trash workers relentlessly working their way down a cluttered Boston street to food kitchen workers ladling out free meals to food-insecure people to – in what will be the true test for viewers smug about their commitment to truly anti-commercial documentary filmmaking – long, unadorned documentation of Walsh’s indefatigable schedule of public speeches and the even more numerous and less ostentatious work of various bureaucrats, activists and other city employees conducting the meetings that attempt to put Walsh’s words into policy. Quoting film critic Mike D’Angelo of the A.V. Club on one early-film budget allocation meeting, it’s as if Wiseman put the banal-seeming event right up front, “as if daring weak-willed viewers to flee.”

But don’t flee. As our friends at the Camden International Film Festival teach us every year, there are as many styles of documentary as there are ways of looking. Some are cause-driven and flashy, pounding their chosen topic home with a missionary zeal. And some are Frederick Wiseman films. Watching Wiseman’s seemingly dispassionate capture of the mundane and everyday is to put yourself in the hands of a uniquely subtle storyteller — and a uniquely non-judgmental one. 

Which isn’t to say that Wiseman doesn’t himself care – in fact, looking over the titles of subjects he chooses (“Domestic Violence,” “State Legislature,” “Juvenile Court”), you gain a sense of what truly interests him. “City Hall,” in its narratively neutral documentation of the workings of a big city government, is guided by Wiseman’s curiosity about people. People in groups. People in discussion and debate. People in need, and people responding to those needs. The film isn’t a portrait of Marty Walsh, any more than it’s a portrait of how a local government should be run. It’s more a portrait of human life in relation to itself, Boston the film’s chosen representative for an examination of how myriad human beings in close proximity balance (or don’t) their individual needs and desires and those of the greater society. 

In Wiseman’s films, themes are left for us to find, the director’s unseen hand taking us on an unobtrusively edited tour of ourselves, and allowing us to draw conclusions. There are shots around Fenway Park, naturally (I think there’s some sort of law about that), scenes of relief workers forming a Thanksgiving turkey bucket brigade, the vocally approachable Walsh listening to constituents at Faneuil Hall and addressing meetings about how climate change has changed Boston Harbor. Call centers field reports and complaints from constituents about everything from potholes to stray dogs to crimes in progress, and young public servants listen (and talk, a lot) at meetings looking at ways to address everything from systemic racism in the city’s policies, to preventing evictions, to looking for ways to empower minority business ownership.

Like I said, a lot of meetings. But, for the cinematically brave, “City Hall,” like all Wiseman’s films, offers a window to our shared experience unlike any other documentarian’s. The unassuming Wiseman has always deferred that it’s “vain” for him to insert himself personally into his films about others’ lives and efforts, but he does do that, in his deceptively insightful way. In responding to inevitable speculation that his choice to focus on the boldly anti-Donald Trump Mayor Walsh (who declared Boston a “sanctuary city” for undocumented people) was, itself, a political statement, Wiseman noted, revealingly, “ ‘City Hall’ is an anti-Trump film because the mayor and the people who work for him believe in democratic norms. They represent everything Donald Trump doesn’t stand for.” 

The gears of local government – of any organization tasked with attending to the multifarious needs and wants of large groups of people – grind slowly, and haltingly. Sometimes with very long, hair-pullingly ineffectual meetings. But “City Hall” is another of Wiseman’s invaluable snapshots (if 272 minutes can be called a snapshot) of how the workaday, mundane labor of public service is, in its own way, uniquely heroic and intrinsically human. 

“City Hall” is streaming through the PMA Films virtual video store, with a part of your rental fee going straight to the Portland Museum of Art. Plus, Frederick Wiseman has finally licensed all of his many, many films to the library-based streaming service Kanopy. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: