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Frederick Wiseman finds competence, empathy and even grace in ‘City Hall’ | COMMENTARY

A photograph of Frederick Wiseman from the movie "Monrovia, Indiana." Credit: John Ewing/Zipporah Films
A photograph of Frederick Wiseman from the movie "Monrovia, Indiana." Credit: John Ewing/Zipporah Films (John Ewing / Zipporah Films)

The arrival of a new PBS documentary from 90-year-old Frederick Wiseman, the dean and master of the genre, has always been a cause of celebration for me. And his 45th film, “City Hall,” which premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on Maryland Public Television, is no exception.

Beyond a camera movement so fluid that it’s almost hypnotic, and an artist’s eye that finds poetry where others see only the bureaucracy of institutional life, this 4 1/2 hour film could not be more timely in showing elected and appointed government workers doing their jobs quietly and well at the local level in Boston’s City Hall. Think of it as a video antidote to the last four years of an outgoing administration in Washington led by too many incompetent officials who never seemed to understand they were there to serve as stewards of the people, not as partisans for only their supporters, friends or other party members.

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As down on government as you might be feeling these days, “City Hall” will make you believe in the need and value of public service to this democracy. It will make you believe that government can still work well when good people do their best to serve the public and make their communities better places to live.

For those not familiar with Wiseman’s pioneering documentary style, this is not your cable TV, true-crime production calling itself a documentary. For one thing, there is no narrator or correspondent telling you what to look for ― or what you should think about what the camera is showing. The term regularly used for Wiseman’s style is cinema verite, which is sometimes described as fly-on-the-wall.

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That is all correct to some extent, but it might make it seem to some as if Wiseman just points the camera, lets it film and then puts that on the screen. That could not be further from the truth of Wiseman’s work.

From his earliest films, like “Titicut Follies,” a 1967 look inside an asylum in Massachusetts for the criminally insane, he has shown tremendous patience and stamina for staying on one event or place hour after hour until his unerring instinct and skilled touch in filming and editing finds and showcases the moments that reveal the truths which lie beneath the surface of the scene. Four and a half hours might seem like a lot in this day of attention spans hopelessly shortened by digital media. And it would perhaps be too much were Wiseman’s film not such seductive rides thanks to the rhythms he weaves into the final product.

I admit there were scenes near the start of “City Hall” where even I started thinking, “OK, I’ve seen enough. Let’s move on already.” But that was largely a result of all the streamed non-fiction I watch and the effect it’s had on my attention span. Once I relaxed a bit and trusted myself to Wiseman’s sure hands, the scenes opened up to me with the context, continuity and deeper meanings they revealed. If you want to enjoy the richness of a Wiseman film, don’t get up and go to the kitchen for a snack every time you think you already know what’s going to happen.

After a few establishing shots of Boston and its fortress-like City Hall, Wiseman’s camera takes us into the 311 call room where he eavesdrops on the operators.

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“Is it an emergency situation? Do you need an animal control officer to go there?” an operator is heard asking a caller.

“She said she couldn’t see a visible cause. There were no downed wires or anything,” another operator says in an attempt to get someone help on a power outage.

“I’m going to open up a case with the Parks Department,” a third operator explains to a caller. “They deal with trees.”

It’s a fast way to immediately engage viewers, but it also served the same purpose as an overture at a Broadway musical, giving those in the audience a sense of the notes that will be played later in the production as Wiseman explores some of the ways citizens contact City Hall for help and how the people there respond ― or not ― to them.

That scene is followed with the filmmaker bringing viewers into a meeting on how the city deals with victims and survivors of violence. It’s chaired by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Boston’s mayor, the central figure in the film.

“I had a meeting with some community activists and one of the biggest pushbacks I got was after the police do their thing, after the police leave, what’s the follow-up on trauma,” he says to the group. ”Police work with the family through the burial, and then what happens after that?”

He is trying to find one person who can coordinate all the different services the city can offer victims and survivors at their time of loss. It’s not as easy as it might seem, but if nothing else, there is empathy in that room.

And then it is on to a budget meeting. Wiseman loves meetings. The guy showing pie charts and running the meeting is at first glance just the kind of person some might refer to dismissively as a bean counter or numbers cruncher. He seems to fit the bill as a bureaucrat; there is no doubt about that. But listen to what he says and look at the charts, and you will find out more in a couple of TV minutes about how your tax dollars are spent at the local level than you ever imagined. He’s not only a really smart guy, he’s an excellent communicator.

One of my favorite scenes finds Wiseman’s camera following a sanitation truck and its crew through a neighborhood near historic Bunker Hill. We see workers throwing bulk trash and bags of garbage into the back of a truck with a huge rotating mouth that devours whatever it is fed. By the time the mouth is shown close-up crunching a mattress, box spring and finally an iron barbecue grill, I realized I had lost all sense of real time. I also couldn’t believe how fascinated I had been by the movement of the metal mouth on the back of that truck. But beyond that fascination, the scene took me to ground zero of one of the city government’s most important services: collecting garbage and keeping the city clean. The street scenes Wiseman shows reminded me architecturally a lot of Baltimore. But Boston seems so much cleaner.

With a new administration taking over at Baltimore’s City Hall this month, I fervently hope Mayor Brandon Scott will make this film must viewing for himself and his team. Citing the need for hard, foundational work to change the status quo, Scott in his inaugural speech said, “This term is not about cutting ribbons, highlights or headlines.”

Wiseman’s film shows what that looks like for Boston’s Mayor Walsh steadily doing the day-to-day, grind-it-out work of governing while attempting to make City Hall serve all citizens despite huge obstacles, including a troubled history of racism, violence and ethnic conflict. That’s another thing Wiseman’s documentaries do better than those of anyone else: educate us about the institutions and civic life of the nation.

One other cause for celebration in connection with this film: MPT is airing all of it in prime time and beyond. I have been critical of the local PBS channel for its handling of some documentaries that it scheduled at times of low viewership or did not air at all. Credit where credit is due to MPT for making sure area viewers can see this remarkable work from one of our greatest artists.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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