Correction: An earlier version of this review included information about personal appearances by director Frederick Wiseman that were cancelled for health reasons. The article has been updated to reflect the change.
Early in the Frederick Wiseman documentary “In Jackson Heights,” a New York City councilman asserts that the titular Queens neighborhood is the most diverse in the country. The opening of the film suggests he’s right. Wiseman’s unobtrusive camera captures snapshots from all walks of life. But as the film continues, Wiseman narrows his focus, wordlessly communicating how one specific struggle defines the neighborhood.
A pillar of the documentary world at 85, Wiseman has been making films for nearly fifty years. His style is a natural extension of his curiosity: He starts filming in and around a particular institution, sometimes for weeks at a time, editing so that the organization of the footage creates a disjointed narrative. There are no interviews, no title cards, and no background music, except for snippets of live performance. Instead, the camera acts as a silent, inquisitive observer. “In Jackson Heights” is what might happen if a stranger plunged himself into the neighborhood without context, trying to figure out what defines it.
In addition to filming people in the street — at a parade, at a park — Wiseman attends several community meetings. He watches as Muslims pray; as members of an LGBT group discuss a potential new meeting site; and as Hispanic immigrants talk about the hardships of their lives. If “In Jackson Heights” is a broad collage, there is something about that last immigrant story that nags at Wiseman. He listens to more members of the Hispanic community: landlords, small business owners and day-laborers. The implication is that their plight is the most urgent.
At just over three hours, the nontraditional storytelling of “In Jackson Heights” is a challenge. Still, Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall conceit is immersive, even comforting. Once we accept the lack of narrative, we take in images and stories from people we might otherwise overlook. Some sequences of people talking, whether publicly or privately, last for 10 minutes or more. While the extemporaneous speech can be both exhilarating and tragic, it is always intimate.
Nowadays, many documentarians make no bones about their agendas. In his own way, Wiseman is no different. What sets him apart is how he gives the audience more respect than the typical filmmaker.
“In Jackson Heights” burrows deeply into the issues of the Hispanic community, even as it pays attention to the transgender, the elderly and the looming wave of gentrification. Wiseman’s voracious curiosity and evenhanded approach to his subject ensures that viewers will have a wide range of responses to the material he has collected. A diverse community can be a beautiful thing, even when — maybe especially when — that diversity is overwhelming.
Zilberman is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At the AFI Silver. Contains coarse language and adult situations. In English, Spanish and Arabic with some subtitles. 190 minutes.
The theater will host a Q&A with director Frederick Wiseman via Skype following Saturday’s 7:15 p.m. show.