There's perhaps no greater observer of institutions than Frederick Wiseman. Over his 50-year career of making documentaries, Wiseman has spotlighted the inner workings of everything from a hospital for the criminally insane in his first film, Titicut Follies, to the Kansas City Police in Law and Order. In recent years he's looked at Paris's Crazy Horse nightclub, London's National Gallery, and life in Queens; his latest film, Ex Libris - The New York Public Library, gives audiences a nearly three-and-a-half hour tour through the many branches of the New York Public Library system.
And that system (which doesn't even include Queens or Brooklyn) encompasses 92 separate branches ranging in size from Bryant Park's Stephen A. Schwarzman Main Branch to Harlem's 685-square foot Macomb's Bridge Library. It's the second largest library in America behind the Library of Congress, offering an almost unending number of community services. Wiseman's documentary sifts through the NYPL like a fly on the wall, giving viewers only a small glimpse at the breadth of the system, but cleverly suggests the institution's core value as a force for community good and social equity beyond merely lending out books.
"It's rather well-known that libraries have books," Wiseman tells me. "I didn't deliberately set out not to show the books." That said, just walking into the NYPL to make the film, even Wiseman was surprised at just how much they offered the city. "I had no idea about the depth and the scale and the complexity of their work," he claims.
After initial visits to the Main Branch and others in Harlem, the Bronx, and Staten Island, Wiseman simply picked up a guide featuring all the upcoming events across the NYPL and went from there, his method for choosing what to film essentially the same it's been for decades. "I never know what's going to happen," he says. "And part of the fun of making the movies is being constantly surprised."
Wiseman's focus extends to institutions as a whole, and part of that is getting inside the backroom meetings where decisions are made about how the library system is run and what its future should look like. It's notable that in those scenes of top-level staff, much of the room's makeup is white, especially in contrast to both the diverse public who use the library, as well as its ground-level staff.
But Wiseman pushes back on that as necessarily representational of the institution itself. "The CEO is a woman, the head of communications and fundraising is a woman, the General Counsel is a woman, a black woman," he notes. "There are lots of people from minority backgrounds in big jobs at the library. And a lot of the people leading meetings are black or Hispanic." To the extent the highest positions at the library are held mostly by wealthy white people is only a reflection of society itself, and Wiseman points out that much of the library's work is geared toward helping those who have been marginalized get a leg up.
That said, Wiseman doesn't set out to make his films necessarily laudatory or critical of any institution he focuses his gaze upon. "It's extremely important, in editing, that I try to be fair to the experience I had of being at the place," he says. "You couldn't make a film about Bridgwater without being critical of the place, because it was a horror show… it's just as important to make movies about subjects like the New York Public Library as it is to make movies about Bridgewater."
Ex Libris was filmed in 2015, but it feels incredibly timely thanks to numerous sequences in which Wiseman's subjects discuss race, bigotry, and the history of slavery. That he encountered so much talk about race during the three months he shot the film was apparently no surprise. "It's always in the conversation," Wiseman says of race in America. "Whether it's race riots, or the civil rights movement, or all the court decisions beginning with Brown v. Board of Education, integration of schools, killing of blacks by police. It's omnipresent."
The racial conversation comes through most plainly and movingly in a scene near the end of the film, set at the tiny Harlem library; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, then-director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, leads a discussion with local members of the community about the impact of the library on their lives. The conversation quickly becomes a very frank and personal conversation about the role being black has played in their lives.
The scene moved Wiseman, too. "When that guy says, 'I learned from the library, I had to take care of my kids and didn't have money to take courses, and I learned how to be a filmmaker from the library,'" he says, "they're examples of small aspects of discrimination. You get a reference to how McGraw Hill papered over slavery. I read the story in the Times that came out a couple years ago, but you get a much better sense of the impact on people's lives when you hear the descendants of slaves talk about it."
Sequences like the one in Harlem are also the reason Wiseman says he prefers not to do much advance research before beginning to shoot his films. "The shooting is the research," he says. "I spent a half a day in the Schwarzman Building before I started, and half a day going around the branches. I don't like to do research when something interesting is going on—suppose I'd been at that library in Harlem doing research the day that discussion was there."
Luckily for Wiseman, over his career he's been granted access to many institutions without much restriction. There is only one time he can think of where access became a problem: "After a week of shooting [Law and Order in Los Angeles], I was told I could do whatever I wanted except ride around in a police car," he says. "Since there were no foot patrols that seriously limited the story, so I moved to Kansas City, MI, where I was given complete permission to do anything I wanted."
But access isn't really his concern, anyway. "At the risk of sounding pretentious, my approach is more novelistic than it is journalistic," he says. "I think any form—whether it's a movie, a novel, a play, a poem, a painting—in an abstract sense you're dealing with the same issues: characterization, abstraction, passage of time, metaphor." The way Wiseman structures Ex Libris to reveal the inner workings and outward value of the New York Public Library exemplifies that approach perfectly, capturing the massive scale of the institution, but also, in its most beautiful and compelling moments, the one-on-one connections made with the people who walk through its doors.
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