Top of the Docs #34 – TIFF Special: City Hall (2020)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This week we head to the Toronto International Film Festival to look at master documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s new film City Hall!

“Our job is to represent and support the people of Boston. […] And when you’re a public employee you have a responsibility to do that.” Within the first hour of the mammoth four-and-a-half-hour runtime of City Hall, Mayor Marty Walsh sets a precedent for the type of mayor he wants to be. Given the increased pressures on city governments to commit their funds for the betterment of a city’s less fortunate, we are left to ask how this works? Veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman takes his unique lens and applies it to his home-town of Boston, taking us right to the heart of City Hall.

Although City Hall does not have a singular personified subject, the closest thing we have to it is Mayor Marty. Known for denying President Trump’s funding cut for cities allowing undocumented civilians to stay by declaring Boston a sanctuary city, Mayor Marty is perhaps now viewed with less of an awe; as he only reduced his city’s policing budget by a measly 3% compared to the already conservative 10% cut that was called for after this year’s Black Lives Matter protests. However, City Hall is not wholly about Mayor Marty, his life, or his five-year term – it is instead more of a survey of his Boston: what projects are happening right now, and how are they being implemented and received.

For the uninitiated, Wiseman’s work can seem intimidating. Making films since 1963, the filmmaker has implanted himself in a variety of institutions from the UK’s National Gallery, to Central Park, to the Crazy Horse nightclub in Paris. His films are in often compared to cinema verité for their fly-on-the-wall style, however Wiseman – who tends to edit his own films (as is the case with City Hall) – makes sure the films have a certain dramatic structure, managing to create a natural progression between scenes whilst also maintaining a grounding to reality. Nothing ever feels staged and we are rarely bored, even when runtimes are as long as City Hall’s.

In terms of its analysis of Mayor Marty’s Boston, Wiseman pulls from a whole host of sources. Across nearly five hours, we see a variety of scenes, from a wedding, to a city budget meeting, to the Boston Red Sox’ 2018 World Series winners parade. The variety of voices that we hear throughout City Hall from archivists helping digitise Boston’s museums to concerned citizens looking to learn more about clearance given to a new smoke shop, gives us clear indicators that Boston is a city desperate to help its citizens with a number of projects either in the line or already up and running aimed at bettering the lives of its least fortunate. Despite being bound by strict budgets and lack of government funding, it is a city striving for the betterment of its people.

Through City Hall, Wiseman provides us a brilliant and unparalleled look into US city government, its struggles and limitations, and the various different people it must try and appease. This is not an advert for Boston – the film is more than happy to show the city’s failings. rather, it is intended to be an observation. Instead of promoting what the city of Boston says it will do to better its people, City Hall shows us what is actually going on, with all the complexity and bureaucracy that that comes with, and it is for that reason that it makes it one of the most compelling and pertinent insights into American government I have ever seen put to film.

City Hall clip.