Venice ’15: Frederick Wiseman’s year of experimentation

Ahead of today's world premiere of Frederick Wiseman's 40th film, In Jackson Heights, the filmmaker talked to realscreen about his first (and probably last) Kickstarter campaign, the allure of the New York neighborhood and why he'll never pander to commercial appeal.
September 4, 2015

Ahead of the world premiere of Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights in Venice, the documentarian talks to realscreen about his first (and probably last) Kickstarter campaign, the allure of a New York neighborhood and why he’ll never make a 2 x 90-minute film.

The making of master documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s latest entry, In Jackson Heights, hasn’t been all that different from his previous 39 docs: he filmed for about eight weeks, shot 120 hours of footage, and is tonight (August 4) premiering the doc at the Venice Film Festival, where he was last year awarded a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award.

But the journey to this year’s festival circuit has been fraught for the 85-year-old filmmaker, who pitched a project for the first time at April’s Hot Docs festival in Toronto and then launched a Kickstarter campaign to drum up US$75,000 for post-production and release costs – an effort that came up short by about $54,000.

If Wiseman’s fans raised eyebrows at the prospect of the veteran filmmaker turning to Kickstarter – despite the platform’s extraordinary success for documentaries this summer – rest assured, they weren’t alone.

“I needed the money, so I tried it,” Wiseman tells realscreen. “I wasn’t very comfortable with the idea of it, but I tried it because I thought I should try it once. But I don’t think that sort of thing is my cup of tea actually.”

The director says he doesn’t like the idea of asking people for support and crisply rejects the suggestion of pursuing another Kickstarter effort in the future – “It’s not a comment on Kickstarter, it’s a comment on my ability to participate in Kickstarter,” he notes – but his experience with the month-long campaign in no way delayed him from completing the doc.

Through funding from long-time supporter, pubcaster PBS, and private granting body The Ford Foundation, in addition to private investors, the director eventually secured the necessary financing.

In Jackson Heights rounds out Wiseman’s “community” trilogy, which includes 1991′s Aspen and 1999′s Belfast, Maine, and deviates from the institutional focus of At Berkeley (2013) and National Gallery (2014). The three-hour film – shot between May and late July of 2014 – is a portrait of the Queens, New York neighborhood, which is said to be one of the most diverse in the world. The film is being distributed by Zipporah Films, and all rights are presently available.

Once again, with his inconspicuous style devoid of narration or talking heads, Wiseman quietly observes residents negotiating what the neighborhood means to them, whether it’s a transgender immigrant protesting discrimination at a restaurant, small business owners bemoaning the encroaching competition of a Gap factory outlet during a Business Improvement District (BID) meeting, or members of the Latino community’s Make the Road New York advocacy group sharing their experiences of immigration to the U.S.

For the latter sequence, Wiseman fixes his lens for 11 minutes on a woman telling a room about her daughter’s horrific experience crossing the border from Mexico, during which she was lost in the desert for two weeks.

in jackson heights

In Jackson Heights

“It’s one thing to read in The New York Times about people coming across the border, it’s another to hear it from the mother of a young woman who’s also a mother to a couple of children,” says Wiseman, explaining why he used the full clip.

“I wanted anybody watching the film to get a feel of what that must have been like, both for the daughter and the mother who thought that she’d been lost and…killed by the coyotes [who arrange the crossings], or was dehydrated and died in the desert,” adds the director.

Wiseman again secures impressive access in Jackson Heights, delving into prayers at a local mosque as well as a meat shop, where he documents in bloody detail the preparation of halal meat. Later, he films the anguish of small business owners worried about possible evictions.

“I won’t say I make obviously political films,” says Wiseman. “I had no idea I was going to get that kind of material before I made the film. I had never heard of a BID before. I was in Jackson Heights for a month and it was something I came across because I met some of the young people going around to the small businesses and I followed them.”

Wiseman is currently working on a ballet based on his 1967 doc Titicut Follies set to be previewed in Toronto during TIFF, where In Jackson Heights will bow on September 11. Though he doesn’t yet know what the next film project will be, the director assures that his year of experimentation with public pitches and crowdfunding has in no way convinced him to change a single element in the style – or length – of his work.

When asked about DR TV commissioner Mette Hoffmann Meyer‘s suggestion during Hot Docs that a 2 x 90-minute film would increase his work’s accessibility to broadcasters, Wiseman growls, “Never, never.”

“If you do that, you have to create two separate films. I work very hard at creating a dramatic structure in one film,” he explains. “I couldn’t count on the fact that the people who watched the first [part] watched the next 90 minutes a week later.

“It’s a very curious thing. People say they like my films but they can’t let them on TV because they’re too long. But one of the reasons they like the films is because they are long and because they are more complex explorations of a particular subject matter,” he adds.

  • In Jackson Heights debuts today (August 4) at 1:30 p.m. at the Sala Grande in Venice.
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