City Hall (2020) ****

December 14th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Fred Wiseman; Documentary; USA 2020, 272 min.

Fred Wiseman, who turned ninety this year, proves he is still a force to be reckoned with directing, writing and editing his latest – 45th – feature documentary that sees him back in his birthplace of Boston, where he started his career with Titicut Follies in 1967, a Mental Hospital for the Criminal Insane, just outside the city limits.

City Hall explores another Boston institution whose mayor Marty Walsh is the first major protagonist in any Wiseman feature. Walsh is very much an antipodean of the current 45th president of the USA, whose supporters Wiseman had portrayed recently in Monrovia, Indiana. City Hall is in the same vein as Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, another functioning body of civic administration. City Hall is not as dramatic as Near Death (about Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital), it is optimistic in tone, unlike many  Law and Order (1969) or Welfare (1975) which were openly derisive: Wiseman clearly believes in the power of these institutions (unlike the current president), but he is unclear as to how this power is wielded and who benefits in the end.

In City Hall, he shows both sides of the coin in micocosm: there is the story of two Bostonians arriving at the Town Hall to complain about their parking tickets, expecting to be sent packing – but pleasantly surprised when their complaints are upheld. But there’s also the other side of the coin: at a forum where local government members discuss racial bias relating to the allocation of contracts among Boston businesses, a minority business man is appalled at the decision, and a study is needed to confirm this.

There is humour and passion – much more so than in Wiseman recent outings: a joyful registry office wedding ceremony between two women is really moving, Wiseman overcoming his cynicism of his early fare, and demonstrating that ordinary people can make a difference. On a funny note, when Walsh gives a speech at the Greater Boston Food Bank about general levels of insecurity, the Boston ‘Red Sox’ mascot Wally (the team had just won the Baseball World Series of 2018) sneaks up behind the mayor, presenting his green Monster identity, a rather overfed Wally.

Not that this newfound optimism is universal: In a long, nearly twenty-minute sequence, the proprietors of a planned Marijuana Dispensary in Dorchester, one of the poorest parts of the city, are confronted by residents who show open mistrust at the developers’ promises. Obviously, this business would attract unsavoury elements of society, and since one of the main shopping centres is nearby, the elderly and vulnerable are deeply concerned and unconvinced by the Dispensary representatives’ promises of new jobs – marijuana growing is one opening.

There is one wonderful shot of a trash compactor crushing everything from matrasses to a gas barbecue installation. One can imagine Wiseman looking at this scene with the wonderment of a little boy. On the other hand, a building inspector takes a tour of a condominium under construction in a neighbourhood on its way to gentrification. Looking out of the window, and admiring the panorama of the impressive waterfront, he admits that the wonderful view will soon be obscured by the construction of other condos.

As always, Wiseman excels in the editing room, so John Davey’s images are in just the right places to tell his story. When not being entertained by the city hall goings on, we can contemplate the magnificent panoramas of a city which blends the traditional brown-stone with glass and steel, cutting edge design with poverty row, in the vast melting pot that is Boston. City Hall symbolises all the the social contradictions in Maryland’s capital which are slowly healed by the mayor and his team. AS

IN CONSIDERATION | BEST DOCUMENTARY at the GOTHAM AWARDS January 2021 | Venice Film Festival 2020


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