City Hall

Four and a half fucking hours that took! Fucking hell. I don’t know why you would insist on that being a movie rather than a miniseries. I mean, it’s the filmmaker’s perspective, but I dunno. Maybe he thought the minutiae of municipal governance wasn’t something that would get people tuning back in, and he needed to trap people in a cinema in a oner to get them to watch it, preferably under a big net.

He needn’t have worried though. This is an interesting documentary. I would tune in again, and maybe with a bit more merriment that after being killed by a marathon run time. City Hall is a close-up look at how democracy actually works. Not elections, not campaigns. What happens on a day-to-day level to keep a city running, and ensure what it’s doing is representative of the will of the people.

It’s basically a year in the life of Boston, and covers a huge variety of topics. It feels like the director shot nearly every municipal meeting. There’s something quite exhausting about the scale of it. They say if you wanna get away with something evil, hide it in something boring. That also works for good too. City Hall tries to unearth from interminable meetings and concept-level discussions a city-wide movement towards redressing economic, racial and gender disparity. In the dull and mundane maintenance of school buildings, business building permit community consultations, and fact-finding enquiries, lies the hidden successes of the lowest unemployment rate in the city’s history, the increase in Latina women business leaders, and a far larger engagement in furthering civil rights than has been seen in half a century. People are getting off drugs and being supported in addiction recovery. Improvements are being made in providing services to homeless queer youth. Discussions about mental health and trauma are being foregrounded in every aspect of community work.

Quietly interesting is how I would describe this film. There are no car chases or explosions. There are no cast of characters where you can boo the baddies and cheer for the goodies. But if you slow down, and accept the pace of intent listening, you will find the stories of a whole city’s worth of people. There is a gallery of individual experiences being interwoven to give a portrait of how a city hangs together.

It’s also about how democracy functions. Because at first I was like, “Ahghugh!” and nearly had my head roll of my shoulders in protest at having to listen to a council meeting. And that’s kinda the issue. We don’t want to do good, we want good done for us. Democracy is so important, but please, don’t make me hear about it. So how do you ensure people’s will at the ballot box perpetuates itself for the next 5 years? And not through media reports of scandal when it goes wrong, but all those boring days it goes right. That’s what City Hall looks at, and comes up with a lot of answers and also no answer. Is it people’s dedication? Political will? Good habits and routines set by policy and culture? Community relations? An engaged population whose sustained attention will hold you to account? All? Something else?

It’s a good one for thinking about. And a good one for slowing down and listening to. Take it more like a podcast than a movie. But worth your attention, definitely.