How a City Government Works, According to Frederick Wiseman

Poster for City Hall (2020), dir. Frederick Wiseman (courtesy Zipporah Films)

Frederick Wiseman has made a career out of exploring specific institutions in depth in each of his films. For his latest, City Hall, he followed the workings of the city government of Boston, Massachusetts from late 2018 through early 2019. Wiseman’s cameras captured Mayor Marty Walsh and members of his administration as they dealt with everything from town hall meetings to donor soirees to building inspections. Through depictions of both striking and seemingly banal incidences, Wiseman loves to build holistic portraits of how a place or organization actually works. The man has been at this game for over 50 years now, and he is very good at it.

Wiseman finds an almost hypnotic rhythm in how he edits his films, acting as a serene observer of everything that transpires. (The epic four-and-half-hour runtime can also lull the viewer.) Yet there’s nothing complacent about his camera; a lengthy sequence during a community discussion over a proposed cannabis shop in a lower-class neighborhood captures a wide array of divergent opinions and concerns from the multiracial residents. The film is neither a condemnation nor a celebration of city government, but a clear-eyed view of how people try to work together.

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City Hall is now available to stream via Film Forum.


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