Over the course of more than four and a half hours, acclaimed documentarian Frederick Wiseman gives an insight into the everyday workings of one of the most important cities in America.
Shot sporadically between 2018 and 2019, Wiseman’s camera is a fly on the wall for innumerable forms of public meeting. From budget summaries, public safety addresses, disaster relief planning, committees on race equality, disability access forums, major sporting events, veteran support groups and more.
City Hall is essentially a broad invitation to watch people work. From garbage truck operators, to charity workers, to the common thread of the documentary – Marty Walsh, mayor since 2014, alongside a cast of hundreds of civil servants and everyday people, all giving their time to improve the place they live; be that their local neighbourhood or chasing billion dollar contracts for the city as a whole.
Typical Boston hallmarks such as duck boats, Fenway Park, fluorescent police uniforms and Faneuil Hall are naturally present, but play second fiddle to the people who staff these iconic places and uniforms. However City Hall also focuses on the much less marketable truths of living in Boston, particularly for African Americans, latinos and senior citizens; namely the well publicised gulf in average income between white and “minority” Bostonians – with minority a misnomer, as a Chinese cooking class we are privy to points out that Boston is actually a “majority minority” city.
Despite many meetings discussing citizens at rock bottom, the overall tone and message of City Hall is definitely that of achievable progress, that their democratic system works and that they’re moving in the right direction. Boston has its problems like any post-industrial city but seems mostly to be suffering from a lack of money, not a lack of good people. Mayor Walsh himself represents an endearing rags to riches story – a son of Irish immigrants and a former alcoholic with a strong Boston accent to boot. Wiseman does an excellent job of making him seem very approachable despite being one of the most powerful people in the US, recently chosen to join President Biden’s cabinet as Labour Secretary.
The film uses no narration, no names, no subtitles or maps, and those behind the camera are never addressed. Neither is there a sense that the camera is elevating or deflating any of the issues or tensions at hand, which is crucial, particularly for a film which deals with so many political and economic truths. It is merely footage in its rawest form, captured by a few cameras on tripods, shown to you. But instead of feeling out of the loop or constantly trying to catch up, we feel part of these meetings where some of the most important people in the state are just everyday workers and our equals.
Although Wiseman has a dedicated following who enjoy his long-form documentaries on American life, City Hall’s run time of four hours and forty minutes lends itself quite nicely to the home viewing version of Glasgow Film Festival this year. While fans will undoubtedly have preferred to at least have had the option of a cinema seat to view this behemoth at its UK premiere, the idea of being able to pause and properly enjoy the full film without interruption is a rare one.
Though a formable length, it is not a dry bureaucratic film and certainly not boring. It has a sense of rhythm to its proceedings and a subtle sense of humour throughout – cutting immediately from a budget briefing full of suits to a less than sure-footed man in a Red Sox bomber jacket, or when a police officer refers to the homeless as “folks who pay a lot of rent at South Station.” At a town hall meeting towards the end of the film, the owner of a marijuana dispensary answers a difficult question from an agitated crowd by saying, “We can’t do everything for everyone, but we can do a lot of things for a lot of people” which seems not only a fair advert for his weed store, but also for Walsh’s administration.
It would be interesting to know if Wiseman deliberately filmed people he knew would look good on camera or whether the competent angle of the documentary was shaped in the editing room, because at almost every meeting at least someone seems very alert or extremely motivated to do their job. It would also be interesting to know whether he chose Boston as a stereotypically strong city whose governance has been critical of then-President Trump, or whether other cities were scouted before settling on his childhood home and democrat powerhouse.
Either way the message is clear, Wiseman’s uplifting film highlights an administration of ask and you shall receive, working for its citizens able to fight their way to the table, while also trying its best to reach out to those struggling at the back.