In Jackson Heights


In Jackson Heights is a more hopeful film than what I expected from the director of High School, Welfare, and of course, the groundbreaking Titicut Follies.  Where Frederick Wiseman often exposes the weaknesses of large institutions, this time he celebrates a unique community in Queens, New York, in his portrait of a neighborhood I know well, Jackson Heights. And while his portrait is not all-inclusive – no documentary can or should pretend to be – it does encapsulate everything I have felt and seen about New York City since I left in 2000.

We enter the world of Jackson Heights through its LGBT community, including the city councilman Daniel Drom. It is an interesting choice to begin with this one of the hundreds of different minority groups in Jackson Heights. One of the reasons, perhaps even the main reason, Jackson Heights is my favorite New York City neighborhood, is because of its remarkable ethnic diversity. As someone in the film says, there are 167 languages spoken in the less than one-half a square mile of streets that make up Jackson Heights. But while I knew the Queens Gay Pride parade took place in Jackson Heights, I was never aware there was a gay community there. And while the gay community has often been associated (rightly or wrongly)  with gentrification of working-class neighborhoods, here they are not simplified into that kind of battle between hardworking ethnic minorities and well-heeled gay interlopers. In true Wiseman fashion, the complexity of the neighborhood and of the relationships between the different groups of which it is comprised, comes through in his careful editing, which is almost invisible. More noticeable is the beautiful camera work by John Davey, which captures the grit of Queens, as well as its vibrancy and color. But it is the editing that makes the 3 hour and 15 minutes slice of life a triumph of direct cinema (a.k.a. fly on the wall).

While the variety of ethnicities reveal their presence at all times (whether someone from Colombia talks about their heritage directly or by what is captured on screen in the background: everything from a Uruguayan cafe to a Malaysian restaurant and an eyebrow braiding salon for the Indian and Bangladeshi population), the focus of the film is on how these communities are coping with attempts to gentrify, changes to immigration policy, and in some cases, the dying off of their members (as in the small Jewish Community there).

I grew up in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s, and with the exception of a few years in Boston, lived there through the 1990s. After moving to Cape Cod in 2000, I have returned to visit several times a year, and what I have seen has been quite disheartening. There’s a scene in In Jackson Heights where a Colombian community organizer lays it all out for his compatriots, explaining how beautification and BIDs (Business Improvement Districts) sound wonderful but end up destroying communities. He cites most, if not all, of Brooklyn, Long Island City, and Astoria, as examples of how this works to push out everything that made those places great and replaces it with a wealthy elite and an onslaught of big box and chain stores that wipe out the uniqueness of each neighborhood.

New York once was a city of neighborhoods, but increasingly, when I return, I see each neighborhood folding into an abyss of GAP stores, Starbucks, and campaigns that push out ethnic diversity in favor of generic concepts of “beautification.” It is becoming a giant shopping mall for wealthy real estate developers, Wall Street bankers, and the white-collar workers and others who continue to live there in memory of what that great city once was.

While In Jackson Heights is of course about a very specific place, it speaks to a larger tendency in America, one that New York City may have been a last hold out against. And that is something that holds meaning everywhere, including here, even if you will not likely see this film shown anywhere on Cape Cod.


‘Brooklyn’ and the Immigrant Experience

brooklynThe immigrant experience is a favorite topic in film, particularly in the American cinema. It is no coincidence that Hollywood’s origins stem from a few ambitious immigrants who headed out west to get away from Thomas Edison’s patent enforcement, as well as for the sunshine, pleasant weather, and open landscapes. Those immigrants aside, America is a nation founded by immigrants that continues to grow and change with the addition of new ones. Immigration is the topic of the day for many political candidates, and it is a continuing fascination that is sometimes treated simplistically and other times with great complexity in the cinema. This week, a new film about immigration to America opens, but it is not a Hollywood production. Brooklyn is an Irish film about an Irish girl who emigrates to the United States in the 1950s. As such, there are a number of differences in how the immigration experience is envisioned.

The story focuses on Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), the youngest of two daughters to a widow in a small village in Ireland. Her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott)  arranges for Eilis to have a job and a place to stay in America. Seeing nothing but small-town doldrums, Eilis goes on the journey and establishes a new life in America. But when she is called back home for a family emergency, she begins to question which life is more authentic to her true self.

The emigration of Irish people to the United States is so often framed around the early part of the 20th century, or even before, when immigration was at a peak for the Irish, Italians, and any number of other groups. It is surprising to see a tale of Irish immigration taking place in the 1950s. This choice of setting, (which comes from the Colm Tóibín book of the same name, upon which Brooklyn is based) reduces the usual dramatic tensions around ethnicity. And while Eilis does come to date an Italian-American boy, Tony (Emory Cohen) and the tensions between the Irish and Italians are referenced lightly, the prejudice the Irish once fell victim to has mellowed by the 1950s and is therefore not a major concern of the film.

Eilis’s world of 1950s Brooklyn is peppered with a colorful group of her countrymen and women. The Irish enclave resembles life back in Ireland, but only to a point; in America, people don’t care as much about your personal business, or at least in the urban neighborhoods they don’t. So when Eilis goes back to Ireland, the differences between small-town life, complete with modest expectations, irritating busy-bodies, and traditions that you’re expected to uphold, and the freedom to reinvent yourself and follow any dream you desire in New York City are accentuated.

Brooklyn is well-acted and absorbing, but the relationship between Eilis and Tony, upon which much of the dramatic tension rests, is lukewarm. Both actors are charming and in fact, adorable throughout, but the passion between them is awkward, leaving room for a lot of doubts that distract from the tension we’re supposed to be focused on. It’s a lovely film with a few wonderful moments, but more than anything, it makes me want to read the book and see all the color that is likely left out of the film. It also had me thinking about my own Irish roots and the nature of being Irish. For that, I was glad to see this film, which shows at Cape Cinema November 25 – December 10.

Peter and John: On Tour

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven, whose film Peter snd John is in the midst of a 100-date Cape Cod tour. It is currently playing in Chatham, but check his schedule because there are dates coming up all over the Cape and Islands.

The film, based on Guy de Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean, stars Jacqueline Bisset and Christian Coulson, and was shot entirely on Nantucket.

Here’s a link to the story I wrote for Provincetown Magazine:

Coming Up Today in Woods Hole

Healing HistoryFilmmaker Kristin Alexander has a great eye and she knows how to pull together short films. She’s done it many times through her company Middleway Media. Earlier this year, I spoke with her about her then just completed film Healing History, which offers a 20-minute portrait of activist and educator Mwalimu Melodye Micere Van Putten. The film has screened in the PanAfrican Film Festival in Cannes  and at the Bermuda International Film Festival (where it’s subject lives), Charlotte Black Film Festival, and in Cameroon and St Louis, MO, as part of the Africa World Documentary Film Festival. It is screening for one night only at 7 p.m. as part of the annual Woods Hole Film Festival.

Van Putten believes that it is essential to teach young black children around the world about their shared African heritage and also to offer them tools for successful living with her Ashaya Objectives, which include four statements, including “I am valuable and have genius,””My history and culture are sources of knowledge with lessons to be learned,” “I must develop my character to succeed,” and “The world is waiting for me to contribute my gifts and talents.” In Healing History, Alexander gives us an overall portrait of a woman with great wisdom to impart, who is working to undo some of the tragic circumstances of the past. The film is very much a collabroation between Alexander (who is white) and her subject and as such provides a wonderful example of how documentarians can work with their subjects while still maintaining a clear artistic vision for their projects.

Tonight’s screening is sold out, but if you are interested in seeing the film or arranging a screening, please contact