Planning July 2020

Et Cetera

Now Streaming: The Pathos of Public Institutions

1989’s Central Park looks at the public space’s impact. Photo courtesy Zipporah Films.

1989's Central Park looks at the public space's impact. Photo courtesy Zipporah Films.

Rather than racing to the presses to promote a new film or video, this month's column is dedicated to celebrating the impressive and ever-expanding legacy of the great documentary filmmaker Fred Wiseman.

For more than 50 years and across nearly as many films, Wiseman has made a career of exploring the public institutions of the modern world. From libraries to public housing and city hall to the welfare office, Wiseman's collected oeuvre provides a ringside seat to the daily work of government bureaucracies and other public settings — many of which will be (often frustratingly) familiar to readers of Planning magazine.

Wiseman’s most recent release explores rural life in an Indiana town. Image courtesy Zipporah Films.

Wiseman's most recent release explores rural life in an Indiana town. Image courtesy Zipporah Films.

Wiseman's style is not for everyone: scenes of daily life unfold at their own natural pace, and with minimal cutting. Shots are long, background noises are present, and seemingly endless minutes creep by with very little conventional "movie action": a woman sweeps a floor; children fidget waiting for the start of an all-school assembly; a researcher sorts photos in the library.

But these marginal times and spaces are where the pathos of people and places reside. Rather than summarize or digest the material for us, Wiseman's camera strives to inhabit these places for a time, so that we may come to understand what it means to attend this school, or live in this housing, or be at the mercy of this social service agency. And while the camera does not flinch from confronting the reality of the interactions it captures — some of which are tense, violent, or even graphic — it does so with empathy. Wiseman is never exploitative or voyeuristic, and while his films are often funny, the humor is never at the expense of his subjects.

Wiseman turned 90 this year, but this nonagenarian has not slowed his production. Most recently, following up on the well-received Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017) and his subsequent exploration of rural life in Monrovia, Indiana (2018), rumors have surfaced that the director's latest film will return to his hometown to feature the life of that brutalist building urban design fans love to hate: Boston's City Hall.

Ezra Haber Glenn, AICP, is Planning's regular film reviewer. He teaches at MIT's Department of Urban Studies & Planning and writes about cities and film at

Planners Playlist: Caribbean Tech

Digital Jamaica Podcast

Digital Jamaica Podcast is dedicated to amplifying Jamaican voices in digital and tech spaces. Hosted by Kadia Francis, many episodes feature Jamaicans who have a major foothold in online spaces.



ICT Pulse Podcast

ICT Pulse Podcast delves into information technology issues from a Caribbean perspective through interviews and group discussions with specialists, experts, and the wider community trying to make an impact into the tech space.

Hakeem Bryan is a young adaptive writer from the streets of Kingston, Jamaica.

Mapped: Ecotography

EthyMaps aims to be the first interactive eco-map of the world. Users can suggest local sustainability-minded businesses, from restaurants to hairdressers, which are then verified and added to the map. The website, launched last June, and an app version due out later this year can be used to evaluate the adoption of ecological living in a given area.

Juliette Bretan is a journalist who covers Polish and Eastern European news and culture.