I must confess that I cannot help but become very, very, very nervous whenever I have to watch and review the latest work from Frederick Wiseman, a great documentary filmmaker who has never stopped in his long, illustrious career although he had his 90th birthday early in this year. As some of you now, his camera simply observes one thing after another without any narration or comment, and we usually have to sit and watch for more than 2 hours at least while trying to absorb and understand whatever is so plainly presented in his documentary.
In case of “City Hall”, its running time is no less than 272 minutes, but, folks, please don’t worry. If you once accept and then go along with Wiseman’s patient and unobtrusive approach, the documentary will eventually come to you as a vivid and absorbing presentation of the city government of Boston, Massachusetts during a period from fall 2018 to winter 2019. Besides, considering how much the American society has been ruined and tarnished during last four years by that deplorable prick who is still in the White House, it is certainly refreshing to see a bunch of decent and hard-working American civil servants trying their best for getting numerous things done for millions of citizens to be served by them, and this documentary, which is sort of an “anti-Trump film” as admitted by Wiseman in his interview at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, will surely make you feel you better while also reminded of the importance of a good democratic government.
In the beginning, the documentary casually glances around Boston and then looks at the exterior of the City Hall of Boston, which is a rather ungainly concrete building compared to other buildings surrounding them. We subsequently watch a bunch of its call center employees busily dealing with numerous calls, and we come to sense how the city and its government are constantly busy as handling many different matters coming to them everyday.
This opening is followed by a series of meetings among administrators working in the city hall, and the documentary calmly and patiently observes some of these meetings for a long time without giving us any background knowledge. This can be a little confusing and frustrating to us at first, but the camera steadily focuses more on what is being eagerly discussed among them, and we come to get more understanding of their works in addition to sensing their admirable professional dedication.
One of the recurring elements throughout the documentary is housing, and the documentary examines how the administrators of the city hall try to take care of this complex longtime issue. Although Boston has been one of the best cities to live in US under the good leadership of Mayor Marty Walsh, there are still many people struggling with their housing problem in the city, and those administrators in the charge of housing supply certainly have lots of things to be done besides closely coordinating with developers and local communities. Sticking to its detached attitude as usual, the documentary looks around many different houses on streets and allies of Boston from time to time, and we gradually come to get what Wiseman subtly tries to convey to us.
Meanwhile, the documentary also observes the diversities of the city population. As pointed out by Mayor Walsh at one point, more than 50% of the city population is non-Caucasian, and that makes him and his city government more determined to solve racial inequality, which has still been prevalent in the city. For example, the city government has supported more inclusive employment of colored people as well as female workers at construction sites, and we also see a number of different meetings for the discussions on how to boost more social/economic inclusion in terms of race and gender.
Of course, these and many other things are surely not something to be accomplished within a few years, but Mayor Walsh, who eventually becomes the human center of the documentary as appearing here and there throughout the documentary, and his people are ready to do their best for making their city better with more inclusion and diversity. These civil servants frequently interact with citizens for getting to know and understand their needs and demands, and there is a touching moment when Mayor Walsh sincerely expresses care and respect at a meeting for war veterans, which incidentally gives us some genuinely emotional moments as the documentary observes several other speakers for a while.
There are also a lot more stuffs to be observed and processed in the documentary. I was intrigued by a brief scene at the city archival center which does much more than collecting and preserving old artifacts from the past. I became a bit wistful as watching a local baseball field filled with many people, which now becomes practically impossible due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I felt a little famished while watching a lovely scene where a bunch of citizens get a little taste of special Chinese noodle dish. And I was also amused by a rather funny scene where civil servants handle the petitions on nullifying parking tickets.
Since I watched “Crazy Horse” (2011) and then “At Berkeley” (2013), I have always admired Wiseman’s documentaries, and “City Hall” is another magnificent achievement of his just like his recent works such as “National Gallery” (2014) and “Monrovia, Indiana” (2017). It may already feel daunting for some of you due to its very long running time, but, as my late mentor/friend Roger Ebert, no good movie is too long, and it is surely long and good enough to contain the multitudes of Boston and its city government.
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