directed by Frederick Wiseman
by Angelo Muredda Frederick Wiseman brings his penchant for humanist sketches of bureaucracy, policy-making, and the mundanity of board meetings with communal water jugs and bad air conditioning to Boston municipal government in City Hall. Though it clocks in at a hefty 275 minutes, City Hall is never a slog, unfurling as a series of fleet, wry vignettes that guide us in and out of different chambers of the titular institution. These range from a communal workspace full of tech-support agents on headsets, politely asking their clients not to yell at them, to chaotic strategic-planning jam sessions led by earnest people in ill-fitting suits, to holiday food-bank events where a procession of Butterball turkeys get choreographed for kitschy photo shoots.
Where Wiseman's institutional cross-sections usually give us an assortment of quirky administrators to hold on to, here he uses mayor Marty Walsh (a vocal dead ringer for Matt Damon) as his main structural throughline, following him across roughly a year's worth of events. Wiseman alternates between Walsh's appearances at various business christenings, memorials, and luncheons, where the salt-of-the-earth politician relates any number of his constituent's traumas to his own past hardships with addiction and childhood illness, and numerous below-decks profiles of unsung yet vital city workers interfacing with a sometimes grateful but often hostile public. A gentle rhythm and sense of communion despite difference emerges from that interplay. Through the interlaced structure, we instinctively grasp that a sometimes annoyingly rhetorically-polished mayor with obvious future intentions for national politics is just one link in an elaborate chain that spans the people who hear (and hopefully dismiss) your parking tickets and the event planners tasked with figuring out how accessibility works when twenty wheelchair users want to use a public space that's only reachable by one keyed lift.
If nothing else, this is surely the longest conversation about the logistics of wheelchair users occupying public space at the festival. Though overloaded by design, City Hall retains Wiseman's formalist discipline in the way he elegantly cuts in and out of new spaces, like a curious student roaming the halls and peering into any number of classrooms. For all of Walsh's bloviating at a veteran's event where he awkwardly ties the harrowing stories of wartime traumas he hears to his problems in recovery, Wiseman's attention to his constant hustle to translate rhetoric into something actionable makes a subtle statement about the precariousness of local policy, given that mayoral terms are short and cities' life spans are long. From time to time, the film suggests, bureaucrats do good work, but it's up to their successors whether to build on or demolish what came before. Programme: TIFF Docs