Frederick Wiseman’s documentary film “Ex Libris: the New York Public Library” is an experience both challenging and engaging. Like many of Wiseman’s notable works, the documentary simply observes without providing any background information to us during its long running time (206 minutes), and you may get quite frustrated with its clinical approach, but it is at least interesting to watch how it gradually presents its big picture as looking into one of the best public libraries in the world.
Mainly shot inside the main building and many other places of the New York Public library for 12 weeks, the documentary shows us various activities inside this huge institute which has served the public for more than 120 years. In the beginning, it shows us a public interview with Richard Dawkins at the lobby hall of the main building of the library, and then we look at the mundane daily work of several library employees, and then we observe a management meeting among the director of the library and his colleagues.
As listening to the words being exchanged among the director of the library and his colleagues during their management meeting, we come to learn a bit about how the library has been stably funded for many years. While the library depends a lot on its government funding, the private funding is equally important because it can not only provide more money for the library’s many different programs but also stimulate further the financial support from the government, so it is always important for the library to maintain this positive financial feedback. While focusing a lot on getting more private and public funding, the director of the library and his colleagues also pay lots of attention to what they can possibly do with their annual funding, and we can sense their passion and dedication from their long discussion.
Besides providing many people books to read, a library does other public services, and we see how the New York Public Library has played a very important role in public education via numerous programs. During a small class at one of branch sites of the library, a teacher tries to generate curiosity and interest from young kids via a computer game, and kids certainly have a fun with that. At the branch in Chinatown, a group of old people learn how to use computers, and that reminds us that a good library is always open to anyone willing to learn more.
The library provides many opportunities for the public to get closer to art and knowledge. One lecturer gives an informative lecture on Islam and slavery in Africa during 18-19th century, and that moment later resonates with a subsequent lecture scene where a curious association between slavery and Marxism is mentioned. At one point, we watch a guy reciting his rap poem during his lecture, and the camera lingers on him for a while as he enthusiastically delivers every verse of his rap poem.
In the meantime, many different prominent figures are invited to the library, and they surely have a lot of things to talk about in front of their audiences. We see Elvis Costello entertaining his audiences as talking about some of his songs, we see acclaimed poet Yosef Komunyakaa explaining a bit why his artistic work is inherently poetical, and we see Ta-Nehisi Coates, the renowned author of “The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood” and “Between the World and Me”, sharing his thoughts on social/racial problems with his audiences.
These notable moments are intercut with more mundane activities inside the library and its branches. There is a brief moment showing how old books are carefully photographed page by page, and then there is a short but wonderful scene which shows how returned books are systemically handled one by one. In case of the newspaper archive section of the library, we get a glimpse into its long history as watching people checking microfilms containing old newspaper articles ranging from New York Post to New York Times, and we come to appreciate more of the importance of public library functioning as an archive of history.
Around the end of the documentary, there is a scene which shows a community meeting held at a small branch site located in one of black neighborhoods of the city, and that is one of memorable moments in the documentary. As several residents of this black neighborhood express each own thoughts and opinions, we come to understand more of what they and their neighborhood really need, and we are also reminded of how a public library can provide a platform for public opinion.
As observing how all these and other things in the documentary are fluidly presented during more than 3 hours, I admired Wiseman’s effortless handling of his subject, but the overall result is less impressive than his recent previous films such as “At Berkeley” (2013) and “National Gallery” (2014). While those two documentary films make a lasting impression on us via their more tangible narrative flow and focus, the documentary feels rather scattershot at times, and I must confess that I often felt impatient during its last hour.
Nevertheless, “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library”, which received the FIPRESCI Prize at the Venice Film Festival in last year, is still a good work on the whole, and I am certainly glad to see that Wiseman, who is soon going to have his 89th birthday, is keeping on as usual. Since his first documentary film “Titicut Follies” (1967), he has constantly impressed us during last 51 years, and, as a matter of fact, he has already moved onto his latest work “Monrovia, Indiana” (2018). He is one of the best documentary filmmakers of our time, and I hope he will go on as much as he can.