Not two days into my Toronto Film Festival experience, I found myself back in New York courtesy Frederick Wiseman’s superb documentary In Jackson Heights, a 190-minute portrait of the titular Queens neighborhood that teems with a vitality appropriate to its subject. A number of Wiseman’s recent films, such as Boxing Gym and National Gallery, feel like profiles of closed systems with their own moral guidelines and rules of conduct—distinct microcosms lying just beyond the larger sphere of humanity. By contrast, In Jackson Heights can’t help but burst at the seams since the neighborhood it depicts is one of the world’s most diverse. Name a religion, a race, a sexual identity, etc. and it’s likely to be found somewhere in the community’s bustling 300 acres. Jackson Heights isn’t of the world so much as it is the world.
Wiseman and his frequent cinematographer, John Davey, still take the same approach they normally do, with no identifying titles, talking heads, or voiceover commentary, focusing more on the gently coursing rhythm of the captured images and sounds. Even when lingering at length in a specific location, it always feels like we’re moving forward (the film is edited so that it seems to take place over three days and nights) and that each moment is fleeting.
This is fitting for a film in which one of the primary tensions is keeping the gentrifying wolves at bay. If there’s a standout character it would be openly gay district councilman Daniel Dromm, who starts off the film with a joyous recitation of all (or as many as he can off-the-cuff remember) of Jackson Heights’s numerous ethnicities. He pops up several times thereafter, negotiating a deal with other politicians, celebrating a local Catholic business owner (a truly touching scene that hilariously climaxes with a brash, leather-clad woman delivering a singing telegram), or officiating at Jackson Heights’s annual LGBT pride parade, an extravagantly celebratory event forever tinged by the 1990 gay bashing and murder of one of the neighborhood’s own, Julio Rivera.
Light in darkness and darkness in light; for every affirmative moment, Wiseman finds a complementary negative. At a senior citizen’s gathering, a 98-year-old woman bemoans her lonely existence, only to be told by one of the attendees that she should use her ample wealth to buy herself some friends. Hispanic laborers, many of them living in the United States illegally, gather to try and secure overtime pay from exploitative bosses. Several business owners in a small mall attempt to counteract the eviction notices that will drive them out and bring a Home Depot in.
Yet whatever the tenor of the various story threads, Wiseman doesn’t resolve them, so much as allow them the room to make a deep-rooted and interconnected impression—varying points on a very large canvas. Over a six-decade, 40-plus-film career, this great filmmaker has cultivated a non-judgmentally omniscient style that nonetheless is uniquely attuned to world currency. No mistake that he gives equal bearing in the documentary to presently vilified classes of people, like the Arab students in a madrasa as they go through morning prayer or the transgender men and women of all different skin colors who tell horror stories about encounters with hateful store owners and policemen. And in a film of many provocative images, perhaps the most potent ones to cloistered Western eyes are those captured in a Middle Eastern-owned poultry slaughterhouse. So many violence-courting differences on display, and yet somehow a fragile peace is maintained—perhaps not just in Jackson Heights? Somewhere between the extremes of despair and hope, the film suggests, lies our true humanity.
There’s nothing but infectious goodwill in Born to Dance, which can be succinctly described as New Zealand’s answer to the Step Up series. Maori newcomer Tia-Taharoa Maipi even resembles original Step Up actor Channing Tatum with his muscled good looks and eager-to-please charisma. Maipi plays Tu, a dancer-in-the-making who spends his days deflecting the demands of his military father and his evenings doing dance battles at the local watering hole. Then the popular hip-hop hoofer troupe K-Crew comes calling with an offer to audition after Tu reluctantly submits a homemade YouTube video of his mad skills. Will he make the cut? Or might K-Crew have some nefarious motives that Tu and his friends will have to expose at the six-weeks-away regionals?
Every expected beat of the genre is hit, thuddingly: Our hero falls for the rich girlfriend (Kherington Payne) of K-Crew’s manipulative leader. Tu’s father constantly expresses his bellicose disapproval of his son’s hopes and dreams before reconsidering at the 11th hour. Lifelong friendships are tested until everyone (t)hugs it out in time for the final number. Even at 96 minutes, there’s plenty of pro-forma melodrama to get through, and very little in the way of in-yo-face cavorting.
Fortunately, this is just a case of everyone saving their energies for the big, bravura climax. The final 20 minutes of Born to Dance are as inventive and joyous as any of the Step Up movies, with the dueling crews telling gravity to talk to the hand and battling it out to subwoofer- and soul-thumping beats courtesy of music supervisor Peter “P-Money” Wadams. It also has to be said that the film shows up its American counterpart with both its multicultural exuberance, especially in several emotionally charged nods to Maori culture, and—via the awesome Michael Metuakore as Tu’s gay friend Tino—its all-embracing approach to queer experience.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10—20.