City Hall


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

City Hall
"Wiseman has stuck around to the point where people forget that he's there, so we see people as they habitually present themselves to one another, rather than more self-conscious performances."

What do you know about what goes on in local government? For most people the answer will be "Not very much." Frederick Wiseman's sprawling observational documentary takes viewers inside Boston's City Hall to observe meetings both public and private, speechmaking, ceremonies, debates and more. It also follows officials as they journey into the community to visit schools or inspect building sites, showing how policy is actualised and how information is fed back to the people charged with making decisions. Far from the glamour of election rallies and national news coverage, this is the democratic process in action.

At 90 years of age, Wiseman cannot expect to be in the filmmaking game for much longer, and it speaks to the values he has cherished throughout his life that he has chosen this subject at this stage. Though it's full of the specificity vital to the documentary art, City Hall nevertheless depicts processes which those who are familiar with local government will find familiar right across the world. At over four hours, it might test the patience of some viewers if watched all in one go, but others will find it soothing and hypnotic. It certainly captures the feeling of doing that type of work all day. Without the requirement to stay sharply alert in case someone asks a question, one will eventually tune out a bit, and it's then that Wiseman's style really comes into its own, speaking to the unconscious mind, presenting material to be absorbed and remembered later.

Unlike most of Wiseman's films, this one has a protagonist of sorts: city mayor Marty Walsh, who appears in around a third of all its scenes, listening as much as speaking, making himself available, providing a visual reference point for the coordination of all these disparate activities. Whilst there's a danger of this rendering the film inappropriately partisan, Wiseman shows different sides to Walsh's character, revealing the image-conscious politician as well as the devoted man of the people. In the tradition of the best fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Wiseman has stuck around to the point where people forget that he's there, so we see people as they habitually present themselves to one another, rather than more self-conscious performances.

The sheer variety of tasks undertaken day to day will make a big impression on many viewers, as will the patience and dedication of most of those engaged with them. Alongside the more staid activities are moments which bring out the humanity of those involved, such as a low-key civil wedding. It's often clear from gestures and brief asides that these are human beings genuinely concerned with doing right by their fellow citizens, even if they're sometimes tired, distracted, or more heavily focused on winning petty arguments.

If there's one thing that people with direct local government experience will notice is missing here, it's corruption. It seems unlikely in the extreme that Boston doesn't have any; Wiseman has simply not managed to capture it. He has done the next best thing, however, by showing us people's suspicion and doubt. This is clearest at a meeting in which residents of a poor neighbourhood argue that they don't want a business selling cannabis in their midst. the business owners and the officials listen, pay attention and offer reassurance, but the looks on the protestors' faces tell us that they've seen all this before, that they expect permissions to be granted regardless.

The racial politics of the city are also on display here and are prominent in anything to do with poverty, those facing deprivation being majority African American whilst those representing the government are majority white. Disabled people are also underrepresented as decision-makers. These things hint at systemic problems which simply trying to do a good job under the system as it is won't address. It would be easy for a middle income, white, abled viewers to watch this film and think that it represented government as a straightforward force for good, but if you pay more attention, you will see the cracks, and it's that difference in perception that hints at the fundamental problems in US politics at the moment, more surely than any display of Democrat and Republican rivalry could have done.

With City Hall, Wiseman has captured a moment in US history in a form that allows for multiple interpretations and no end of insights. it's a deceptively gentle film full of fierce potential, but most importantly it acts as a reminder that democracy takes work, and that it's this day to day grind, rather than the grandstanding at the top, that makes the most difference to people's lives.

Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2021
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City Hall packshot
A look at Boston's city government, covering racial justice, housing, climate action, and more.

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Starring: Marty Walsh

Year: 2010

Runtime: 272 minutes

Country: US

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