'EX LIBRIS: The New York Public Library': Film Review | Venice 2017

A mind-expanding look behind the bookshelves.

Frederick Wiseman observes the patrons and administrators of America’s largest library after the Library of Congress.

There’s a reason why Frederick Wiseman’s long, rigorous documentaries attract such big, happy festival audiences, like the ones that greeted his Venice competition entry EX LIBRIS: The New York Public Library with applause at the simple appearance of the film’s title onscreen. Wiseman has carved out a unique niche in American documentary filmmaking and after 50 years on the job, he is a beloved, reliable observer of American society and democracy. Never talking down to his audience, he rather pulls them up to an intellectual level where other filmmakers fear to go.

“Access to information is the fundamental solution to inequality in our times,” states one of the film’s speakers, staking out a very clear place in the current American dialogue. This high-flying approach makes EX LIBRIS a political statement as well as an exciting adventure of the mind. Though not without its challenges, notably in a long series of nearly incomprehensible administrative meetings, it is a muscular example of institutional hagiography that should find ready consensus with the director’s usual audiences.  

Wherever Wiseman plants his camera — in the thick of board meetings, at public talks and performances, in kids’ reading labs — he samples the stunning diversity of services on offer from this huge modern library. Like his last film, In Jackson Heights, where the people of Queens paint a natural portrait of the neighborhood, the New York Public Library is a mosaic of the faces of its patrons. They astonish with their diversity, individuality, curiosity and sheer numbers. (There are some 18 million patrons a year in 92 branches spread throughout Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island.) As the camera flips through a gallery of faces belonging to every age group, social class and ethnicity, it becomes clear how central the library is in the lives of all New Yorkers.

And it’s not just about lending books. The library is first of all a liberal place to expand your mind and ideas, as is clear from the very first scene in which Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist, attacks Creationism as ignorance to an SRO audience.

In one extraordinarily edited scene, energetic job recruiters storm the Bronx branch of the library to make their case for becoming a fireman, a soldier, an IT worker, a paramedic. Outside, gaudy signs and For Rent notices preside over trash-blown avenues. The library is depicted as not just a haven, but a community center for children, teen and adult education. There are special branches for people with disabilities, classes in Braille, an interpreter for the deaf who demonstrates sign language while the Declaration of Independence is read.

Wiseman is at pains to stress the library’s welcoming, inclusive attitude toward all New Yorkers. A good part of the film records at length several passionate lectures on liberty and emancipatory thought in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture located in Harlem: Islam and slavery, Abraham Lincoln and Marx, an African-American poet comparing language as emotion with the blues. At other branches, Elvis Costello is interviewed about an anti-Thatcher song and Patti Smith speaks on her writing. There are reading groups, concerts of chamber music and an electrifying performance by a young rap poet.

For more than three hours, Wiseman watches and records the events around him, without ever interjecting a question or a comment of his own. The result can seem like massive information overload with few signposts to guide the audience through the labyrinth, but this is the method. Viewers are left to form their own impressions, to pick and choose and take home what is relevant to them.

One imagines that a limited number of librarians will be interested in the endless stream of board meetings that take place in book-lined rooms, where budget discussions are revealed to be the foundation of the library’s curated operations. How can they increase their 61 percent of public funding, and use that as a lever to jack up private donations? Should they invest in best-sellers, which are popular check-out items, or research books? And what about the surge in requests for e-books that has created a four-month waiting list?

These talky meetings that unfold in in-house jargon get a wee bit boring and distract from the featured moments. But they do not sink the film; it’s too fascinating for that.

John Davey’s camera captures the spirit of each branch in two or three exterior shots before diving in to the heavenly mind space inside.

Production companies: EX LIBRIS Films
Director-screenwriter-producer-editor: Frederick Wiseman
Director of photography: John Davey
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Doc & Film International

197 minutes