CITY HALL – Review by Diane Carson

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City Hall goes behind the scenes of Boston’s government.

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman does not make the viewer’s life easy. Quite intentionally he provides no voiceover narration and abhors flashy edits. Moreover, his latest film, City Hall, runs four and a half hours. What he does do, and has for over five decades, is burrow deeply into the institution or experience he’s detailing.

By contrast, conventional documentaries come across as delivering prejudged, predigested information. Yes, Wiseman edits and organizes the flow, but he also provides so much information that he grants extraordinary access to his subjects. Further, as his titles indicate, Wiseman chooses institutions rather than individuals as he did in High School, Basic Training, Juvenile Court, and National Gallery, to name a few. Now, in City Hall he trains his penetrating lens on Boston’s bureaucracies: administrators, police, firefighters, sanitation, inspectors, traffic control, community outreach, local resident groups, race relations, and more.

At length, at times perhaps to our dismay, viewers take a seat in Boston budget hearings, in the room of an answering call center, at marriages, parade announcements, parking arrangements and safety precautions for the Red Sox celebration. Add to that task forces on eviction notices, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s interaction with numerous local groups (senior citizens, Latinx, nurses, etc.), construction permits and school oversight, garbage pickup, civil rights, and master plans; in effect, the myriad of areas a city oversees, sanctions, and negotiates—a jigsaw puzzle of successes, challenges, and setbacks. Responding to all that, Boston Mayor Walsh’s closing speech is downright inspirational.

Scenes unfold in real time, no interpretive processing to create forced drama technically or thematically. What accumulates is a breadth and depth of understanding, both pedestrian and prosaic, of a huge city government, Boston’s, in all its complicated, complex, humdrum and contested spheres. Occasional shots of city streets and buildings provide breathing space, needed breaks in this marathon. Wiseman says he made City Hall to, in his words, “illustrate why government is necessary for people to successfully live together” in a city “whose population exemplifies the history of diversity of America. . . The Boston city government is designed and strives to offer these services in a manner consistent with the Constitution and democratic norms.” City Hall offers a comprehensive seminar in civics and is available on the Zipporah Films website.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.