New PBS Documentary Shows the Inner Workings of Boston City Government

By Lauren Bennett Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s 45th film takes a four and a half hour look into what makes Boston city government tick. Called City Hall, the documentary was filmed over 10 weeks in 2018 and 2019, and premiered on PBS stations across the country on December 22.

On December 18, GBH held a virtual public event called City Hall: A Look Behind the Scenes, where GBH president Jon Abbott spoke with Wiseman and Mayor Marty Walsh about the film. The film was recorded “…pre-pandemic and kind of looking at the way we used to govern,” Walsh said. “What we’re doing now is a different type of government,” he said, referring to the changes that came about following the pandemic. The film shows various in-person meetings and scenes of people congregated together, but “all of that changed in March,” Walsh said. “It all went to Zoom; it all went online.” He said it’s been important to his administration to “keep people connected to their city government,” even though it now has to be done in non-conventional ways.

When making the film, Wiseman was given access to Boston City Hall for 10 weeks and shot over 100 hours of footage. “Everything surprised me because I knew absolutely nothing about Boston city government,” Wiseman said at the online event. He said that “visiting the various departments” and having access to meetings, among other things, “gave me a real sense of how the activities of City Hall, and the mayor, and the people who work at City Hall touch every aspect of our daily lives, much more so than any other form of government—state government or federal government…” Wiseman added, “the film is the study of the contract between the citizens and the city.”

As someone who does not typically know much about the subject matter of his films before he begins delving into the filming, Wiseman said that he takes an objective look at his subjects and tries not to “think about judgement or point of view.” He said his films are a “combo of instinct, luck, and good judgment,” and that he’s “learned over the years to follow my instinct.” Abbott asked Walsh if having cameras inside City Hall for weeks affected his day-to-day activities and governing. “It didn’t really impact it at all,” Walsh said, adding that “the first day might have been the only time that I recognized or was cognizant that Fred was in the room.”

He said, “We didn’t say certain things because he was there or not say certain things because he was there. I think you see the honesty throughout the film of people just talking and saying what they say…the movie being so genuine; that’s what makes it unique.” Wiseman said that in making the film, “the shooting of the film is really the research. Really what I’m interested in is human behavior.”

He said he also worked to make sure he answered everyone’s questions and “did whatever I could to de-mystify the process” to make himself seem like as much of a fly on the wall as possible during the filming. Walsh also mentioned that the film was created prior to George Floyd’s death. “After the murder of George Floyd,” Walsh said, there is “so much more to do as a nation but also as a city. In Boston, we’re approaching it with the urgency it deserves. This is more than a moment.” He said he is going to use this film “as an opportunity to learn” about how the city operated before and how it should operate moving forward. “This is the time now; we have to do even more than we’ve done in the past,” Walsh said.

“When we talk about systemic racism, it’s a systemic change in policies and that’s really what we have to work on.” Wiseman said that he is “appreciative of the access I had,” and “I began to have some appreciation of the complexity of the tasks. The mayor is like a conductor of the symphony orchestra,” Wiseman said. When asked by a viewer what one thing Mayor Walsh would change in the movie, he responded by saying that he wishes he could have added last week’s nor’easter, as well as the national election.

He said he wanted to show the “public works department out there cleaning the streets” and working together while still being cautious of COVID-19. He also said that on Election Day, “we had everything counted by 9:00 [pm].There was no recounts, and there was no waiting, and it was ready to go,” Walsh said. When asked about the length of the film, Wiseman responded, “the subjects I pick to make movies about are complicated subjects,” and he said he wants to make it as “accurate” as possible. “My films come out at a length that I think appropriately reflects the material.”

Walsh said that when he watched the film and how many meetings are included, including lots of internal meetings, he said he was surprised to see “one scene with Sheila Dillon in housing and she was at a table; people were talking. I initially thought it was an internal meeting of staff… As the camera spanned the crowd, I realized it was an activist meeting,” he said. “…I knew that this was something special because there was no editing and cutting of so called potential ‘controversial’…and that struck me.” Walsh thanked Wiseman for telling the story of Boston’s government, and said that “more trust” in government is needed today.

Wiseman thanked Walsh for the access and said he has “great admiration” for all those who make City Hall operate. On what he wants viewers to take away from the film, Wisemsan said, “I think a greater appreciation for the effort and complexity of the task and admiration for the people who are working the issues.” The film aired on GBH and other PBS stations on December 22, and will be streamed on the PBS app for four weeks following the premiere.

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