Glasgow FF 2021

City Hall review – engrossing testament to the messy web of government

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman's latest is a sprawling, four-hour look at the inner workings of Boston's local administration

For over 50 years, the American documentarian Frederick Wiseman has crafted meticulous, sprawling portraits of institutions that observe the minutiae of their operations – though “sprawling” is perhaps an understatement. I have admittedly felt intimidated by the running times of his films, which – like his 2017 work Ex Libris: The New York Public Library – have a tendency to pass the three-hour mark.

Clocking in at four and a half hours, Wiseman's latest, City Hall, is no different. Yet as the minutes came and went, my fears trickled away. What’s remarkable is that no matter how seemingly dry each sequence is (you’re essentially signing up to watch a lengthy series of discussions), the film remains deeply and consistently engrossing.

With City Hall, Wiseman takes his detached cinematic approach to document the everyday workings of Boston’s local government. In the organised chaos of day-to-day operations there is one constant, the city’s mayor Marty Walsh, who appears genuinely empathetic to the problems of his constituents and shares stories of his own struggles with alcoholism, medical bills, and cancer to find common ground.

But City Hall is no work of hagiography. While ostensibly a detailed love letter to the city, these small moments accumulate to give a full picture of not just the signs of progress, but the failures, too. The beginning is full of committee hearings designed to see how the government can make life easier for the working class, people of colour, and the LGBT community, which lies in stark contrast to later segments where we meet the locals themselves: a man who’s so stressed by his rat infestation that he can’t sleep at night; worried constituents from a low-income neighbourhood who confront a proposed weed dispensary for gentrification. When Mayor Walsh delivers a speech on the accomplishments his office has made, you’re fully aware of exactly how true these words are.

Some clever editing aside, there is no editorialising to be found. With no narration or interviews, Wiseman’s subjects speak for themselves, leaving you to parse and interpret what you see for yourself. These are just observations of everyday life, rendering this as the cinematic equivalent of people watching at the park. It’s also probably the closest we’ll get to actual people watching for a while, meaning City Hall is worth savouring for the vastness of humanity it contains. At a time when we’ve used to looking at governments in plainly black-and-white terms, the film stands as a testament to the messy webs of these complicated institutions.

City Hall was screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced. For more festival info, visit our dedicated page. You can buy tickets here.

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