His documentaries aren’t for meager attention spans, but Frederick Wiseman is a national treasure whose films explore the workings of institutional systems — the New York Public Library, Miami’s zoo, University of California, Berkeley — and fascinate. Wiseman’s latest, “City Hall,” looks at the sprawling world of Boston’s city government.
Wiseman, 90, has been making his distinctive brand of cinema since the 1960s. His films contain no narration, talking heads or onscreen explanatory text and combine old-master skill with childlike curiosity. They tend to be long — four and a half hours in this case — but he uses that running time effectively.
Set inside Boston’s City Hall building (whose brutalist architecture Wiseman thankfully doesn’t dwell on), and at other governmental sites, the 2018-filmed doc features human stories and daily grinds. Phone operators answer calls in a 311 center. Two women exchange marital vows. Planners discuss the victory parade for the world champion Boston Red Sox, with memories of the Boston Marathon bombing darkening the conversation.
Elsewhere, police briefings occur, firefighters extinguish a blaze and parking-control officers issue citations. A mattress-ingesting garbage truck, captured by cinematographer John Davey, is a captivating sight. We also meet street-repair crews, school-board members and animal-shelter denizens.
Sometimes, Wiseman breaks from the action and shows modern skyscrapers, red-brick colonial structures, and neighborhood streets.
Popping up frequently is Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat with Irish roots whose priorities involve tackling racism, economic disparity and climate change. Walsh speaks to various interest groups, sharing stories about personal struggles, including alcoholism.
“A major American city whose population exemplifies the history of diversity of America” is how the Boston-born Wiseman describes the town in a director’s statement.
“Boston’s city government is the opposite of what Trump stands for,” Wiseman adds, and Walsh, as presented here, personifies such politics.
While Walsh is a decent and personable man, one wishes Wiseman had granted him less screen time. Too often, Walsh seems like the star of the movie, at the expense of equally deserving, lower-profile figures.
That’s not to say that Wiseman doesn’t grant some deserving subjects a spotlight. He devotes more than 20 minutes to a gathering of military veterans who speak rivetingly about war-related trauma.
Wiseman also deserves credit for acknowledging that the equality-minded ideals embraced by Walsh don’t always triumph. Homelessness, hunger and addiction plague many Bostonians.
At a community meeting held in a poor, nonwhite neighborhood, residents question the business folk who hope to open a cannabis dispensary there. The residents, having experienced such frustration before, worry that their concerns won’t be seriously considered.
Humanity, too, is on the bill, and that’s not a quality generally associated with governmental processes.
Especially memorable is a passage in which a 71-year-old tenant with a negligent landlord and a rat-infested apartment confides to a pest-control inspector that he’s struggling. “My spirit is broken,” the man tells the sympathetic city worker.
More lightly, two motorists try to talk their way out of parking tickets. The outcome will surprise.
With: Marty Walsh
Directed by: Frederick Wiseman
Running time: 4 hours, 35 minutes
Intimate and inspiring, “Irmi” tells the story of a German Jewish refugee whose survival and resilience filmmakers Veronica Selver and Susan Fanshel present against a backdrop of 20th-century history.
Based on the memoir by Selver’s mother, Irmi, the 70-minute documentary, via interviews and archival materials, chronicles the almost century-long life of its 1906-born subject. German actress Hanna Schygulla reads portions of the memoir aloud.
Raised in a Jewish family in Chemnitz, Germany, Irmi, after Hitler took control, knew she had to leave Germany and, soon, Europe as well. Her journey met with tragedy when a mine explosion killed her first husband and two children while the family was aboard a Chile-bound ship in the English Channel.
The film also covers Irmi’s years spent in New York City, New Jersey, Paris and Cape Cod. Other topics include Irmi’s second and third marriages, new family, employment as a secretary (until age 89), and second career as a massage practitioner. Her generous, positive spirit pervades the film.
The postwar Irmi wasn’t all cheeriness, of course. The filmmakers make clear that beneath her upbeat exterior lay an undying awareness of the heinous acts of which humankind is capable.
This isn’t the first documentary about a life-embracing survivor of extreme personal and historical trauma. But Selvin and Fanshel’s heartfelt tribute to Irmi is undeniably moving, and the consideration the pair give to the 20th-century Jewish experience, and to the strength and contributions of refugees and immigrants, broadens and deepens the picture.
With: Irmi Selver
Directed by: Veronica Selver, Susan Fanshel
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes