Urban Democracy's DocumentarianHistorians in the News
tags: government, urban history, documentary, local government
Boston’s City Hall—that infamous, polarizing, and imposing brutalist seat of the city’s government—has loomed over the downtown area since 1968. In making a film about such a place, a less thoughtful director than the famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman would waste time fetishizing the building’s distinct physical form and concrete clinicality. Thankfully, Wiseman opts instead to humanize the city hall, showing us the astonishingly diverse set of activities completed within its beige walls each day. As marriages are officiated upstairs, Bostonians challenge parking tickets in the basement, and press conferences rattle through its auditoriums, the building—under Wiseman’s curious eye—appears as a buzzing beehive of life and public administration. Replete with crowded rooms and austere, labyrinthine halls, the building eventually embraces Wiseman’s camera, offering itself as a home base and warm reprieve from the New England cold. As we watch the dim sunset light its windows, and night fall over its jagged exterior, the building reveals its wondrous dynamism. In the process, we come to understand how the decisions made inside the building will affect the lives of Bostonians outside it.
It is often said that the films of Wiseman are a “celebration of democracy.” City Hall, his new four-and-a-half hour epic about the inner workings of Boston city government, is certainly no exception. But to describe his films as merely an homage to democracy and institutions is only part of the story: for as much as they affectionately linger on management conferences, legislative sessions, and town halls, Wiseman’s films also illuminate the dire conditions on the ground to which democracy ostensibly responds.
Wiseman’s subjects exist in the real world, and therefore contend with the myriad aspects of American society that are decidedly undemocratic: systemic racism, poverty, police brutality, and the prison industrial complex, to name only a few. Now, with City Hall, Wiseman offers what is perhaps his most expansive and dense exploration of these familiar themes; meanwhile, the fraught history and uncertain future of his native Boston, Massachusetts, hovers over the film’s bureaucrats and constituents throughout.
Thanks to Wiseman’s thoughtful editing and the film’s colossal length, City Hall succeeds as an appropriately holistic depiction of government and its broad responsibilities. And while government professionals are given their day in the sun, Wiseman affords similar attention to the thousands of blue-collar workers, who are arguably more crucial to the city’s day-to-day functionality. In a surprisingly poetic sequence, we watch as Department of Sanitation workers make their rounds, shoving fallen tree limbs and discarded mattresses into the jaws of a waste collection truck. While such valorization of sanitation workers could be patronizing or cloying in lesser hands, Wiseman’s gaze is genuinely dignifying. Without the aid of voiceover narration, music, or interviews, he is able to remind us that a functioning city is but a collage of such unacknowledged, unglamorous services like trash collection, made possible by the tireless grunt labor of individuals.