'City Hall': US democracy despite Trump

Paris (AFP) –


Frederick Wiseman's epic new documentary "City Hall" about local government in Boston is an antidote to Donald Trump's division and dysfunction, showing a meat-and-potatoes mayor making American democracy work.

Over more than four hours Wiseman follows Marty Walsh, who has since been tapped by US President Joe Biden as his labour secretary, bringing Boston's diverse Babel of people together rather than tearing them apart Trump style.

"Trump is an unseen presence in the film," Wiseman told AFP. "It was a relief to me and I think it's a relief to some people who watch the film to see a politician actually interested in doing a good job."

For over half a century the 91-year-old Oscar winner, who divides his time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Paris, has been making documentaries that put the US and its institutions under the microscope.

For years he had been drawn to the idea of making a film about a local council.

"It's an overarching institution that dealt with a lot of the subjects of my previous films... so it just seemed to me a natural fit," he said.

In the film, long scenes of meetings and speeches are interspersed with shots of Boston and its binmen at work and visits to the fire department, an animal shelter, the archeology museum.

- Extraordinary mayor -

Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants who grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in the city and was elected its mayor in 2014, emerges as the star, melding people together by his passionate speeches and following up with action.

He is the embodiment of everything Trump was accused of not being -- getting into the nitty-gritty of issues from immigration to inequality and fixing things rather than causing chaos.

"If I had made 'City Hall' when Obama was president I think the reaction would have been Mayor Walsh is a very good mayor, but in the context of Trump he is extraordinary."

Since his first film in 1967, the controversial classic "Titicut Follies" on a grim mental institution, Wiseman has never lost his sociological focus over more than 40 documentaries.

The films, which range from just over an hour to six, include studies of a blind and deaf school, a police department, a boxing gym, an air force academy and New York Public Library.

Wiseman has also turned his lens on some of France's most famous institutions, from the Paris Opera Ballet to the legendary cabaret club Crazy Horse, as well as the Comedie Francaise, the guardian of the flame of French classical theatre.

- Roll of the dice -

Although Wiseman was born in Boston, he said he had no interest in exploring his own roots for "City Hall".

It just had to do "with the fact that they answered my mail."

Wiseman had read an article about six of the best mayors in the US and wrote letters to all of them. Only Boston responded positively.

In any case, taking the personal autobiographical angle in his films is not the Wiseman style.

Although he says every choice in shooting and editing is subjective, he approached "City Hall" in much the same way as his other films -- going in cold, doing minimal research.

"The shooting of the film is the research," he insisted.

"I have said that a lot, but it has the charm of being true. Because I don't like to be present doing research when something really interesting may be going on."

His films, as a result, are documents of discovery and quiet observation of people in action.

A lot of getting those great, snatched Wiseman moments "is just a roll of the dice" said the master, who always works in a team of three; himself on sound, a cameraman and an assistant.

"It's a combination of judgement and luck or chance," he insists.

And also time.

Wiseman shoots around 140 to 150 hours of footage for each film, though "City Hall" by comparison was modest -- 104 hours for some 11 weeks of shooting.

"The film is a learning experience for me. Whatever I have learned about the subject you see in the film."

With its planned release hit by coronavirus lockdowns, "City Hall" will be shown across the world as cinemas reopen.