Taking the lid off the library

Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the New York Public Library graces Docaviv

THE NEW YORK Public Library (photo credit: ZIPPORAH FILMS)
THE NEW YORK Public Library
(photo credit: ZIPPORAH FILMS)
‘T he library is open seven days a week. I got involved in the rhythm of the place... What surprised me is the depth and scope of their activities. I naively presumed that this is a place where you go and get a book,” said Frederick Wiseman, one of the world’s most acclaimed documentary directors, speaking about his latest film, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library . The film will be shown at Docaviv, the Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival. The festival, which turns 20 this year, will run from May 17-26 at the Tel Aviv Cin- ematheque and other venues around the city, and features dozens of feature-length documentaries and shorts from Israel and around the world.
Wiseman, 88, is a pioneer of the so-called cinéma vérité style of documentary filmmaking (also known as the fly- on-the-wall method), in which he films subjects with no explanations, questions or talking heads spell- ing it all out for audiences. Wise- man has been in the forefront of filmmaking for over five decades. Trained as a lawyer, the Massachu- setts native turned to filmmaking in 1967. His first film, the controversial documentary Titicut Follies (1967), a look at a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane, will also be screened at Docaviv. Titicut Follies shows shocking scenes of neglect and brutality on the part of the hos- pital staff, and it was banned for decades because of a legal dispute. Titicut Follies is rarely shown and anyone interest- ed in it should not pass up the chance to see it on screen at Docaviv.
Wiseman has since made more than 45 films and has turned his camera on such subjects as ballet, the welfare system, pub- lic housing projects, the University of Cal- ifornia at Berkeley and many other topics. In 2003, he was awarded the Dan David Prize for his life’s work, which was awarded in Tel Aviv.
Ex Libris is fascinating glimpse into the multifaceted world of New York’s library system, which in addition to housing books is a citywide community center, an arts performance space, an Internet cafe (without the coffee), an after school pro- gram that provides free tutoring and home- work help, a picture resource for artists, and much, much more.
That this jaw-dropping assortment of public services is provided free of charge to millions of New Yorkers is awe-inspir - ing, but the movie is much more than a civics lesson. It provides a look at the inner workings of the main branch, as well as many neighborhood libraries. It also includes many meetings in which the library’s directors and administrators try to map out a course for the library in the digital age. These discussions makes it clear that the library, more than ever, is a great equalizer in that it provides free Internet service for those who don’t have it at home.
There are also cameos by many authors and musicians who give performanc- es, interviews and readings at the library, among them Elvis Costello, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Patti Smith.
In a recent phone interview from Paris, where Wiseman is preparing to direct a play, he said he “knew nothing” about the NYPL before starting his film.
“I knew I wanted to shoot the administra- tion at the main branch and the archives and at various branches in communities all over the city.”
He also worked with a liaison and con- sulted monthly schedules of the branches.
As he grappled with the range of this sub- ject, “I followed my instincts, something I’ve learned to do... The model is Las Vegas. I choose a subject, and take a risk that I’ll find enough for a film.”
In this case, he found way more than enough, and winnowed 150 hours of foot- age down to the film’s final 197-minute run time, which may sound daunting, but the film is so skillfully made and entertaining that it feels much shorter.
But no matter how many times he’s done it, cutting a film is never easy.
“It’s same problem with every film. I sit in front of the screen, and basically study the material and work on it till I have a film.”
It’s a time-consuming process, and Wise- man jokes that “I’m fed intravenously... I sit there from morning till night.”
Making Ex Libris taught him, that, as Toni Morrison said, “The library is the great democratic institution and it represents everything that [US President] Trump is against... All the things that library does are the opposite of what Trump represents,” such as helping immigrants research their legal status, teaching African American history, counseling small business owners, providing sign-language interpreters for the deaf at performances, teaching people who have recently lost their sight how to read Braille, helping children with their home- work after school and more, all of it for free.
Some reviewers were surprised that there are so few books on view in the film, and that much of it is devoted to the library administration’s plans for a digitized future.
“Every scene in the movie is related to books,” he said. “And to the library staff, who are genuinely there to help people.”
Many of the most interesting and touch- ing scenes show librarians helping patrons research obscure topics, cheerfully and with a wealth of knowledge.
A three-hour documentary about a library isn’t especially commercial, and funding the film wasn’t easy. Ex Libris was produced by Wiseman’s company, Zipporah Films, with support from the Ford Foundation, PBS, ITVS and several other organizations. Rais- ing the money for each movie “is the least interesting part and it’s very, very hard.”
Wiseman is at work on a new film, but he likes to keep his new projects secret until they are ready to go. But he does have a question of his own, and one I can’t answer: “I want to know why none of my films has ever been on Israeli television? They should support a nice Jewish boy from Boston.”
To see the Docaviv schedule and to order tickets, go to the festival website at http:// www.docaviv.co.il/2018-en. You can also order Ex Libris on DVD and Blu-ray at his website, http://www.zipporah.com/films/46.