Ex Libris: New York Public Library ★★★★☆

Frederick Wiseman’s 42nd documentary examines the New York Public Library and its various branches around the city.

Usually, Wiseman visits various buildings and locations to build up his portrait of this institution, a slightly different approach to his customary technique of inhabiting one edifice and acquainting us with its rhythms and quirks over three or so hours.

As a result, some of the transcendent power of say, National Gallery, or At Berkley, is dissipated – however, its the city of New York itself that comes into focus, its people, its brains, its social needs.

The NYPL fulfils so many functions. We eavesdrop on: the call centre helpdesk; finance meetings; a tour of the picture library; Books at Noon talks in the vast main hall with Richard Dawkins; big interviews with Elvis Costello and Patti Smith; a talk on Islam and slavery; a flick through precious early engravings; a lecture on Jewish delis; a dance group for the elderly; computer lessons for Chinese; reading classes for nursery kids; glamorous fundraisers; more meetings about digitisation.

Remarkably, for a film about a library, there isn’t much about books here. Libraries, the film says, are much more than repositories and store rooms for hardbacks – they’re spaces for communities to learn and to come together. The institution of learning – reaching from the poorest and the homeless to the wealthiest philanthropists – thus stands proud, clear and democratic against the bulldozing philistinism of Trump. 

Wiseman seems certain the NYPL is there to stay – the giant structure on 5th Avenue maybe, although I’m less positive about some of the outlying branches, where technology and real estate values surely are big threats: if a library is available online, what need have we of shelves?

Ex Libris makes a persuasive, positive case of the libraries as the fabric of a civilised society. Wiseman is in upbeat mood here and seems to love everyone who comes into view in his deeply empathetic film that beats with a generous humanity. I loved the old girls dancing, the vivacious discussion of Marquez at the book group, the inspirational meetings on job applications, the Hebrew Meats jingle played during the deli lecture…

Wiseman is a master and a unique film eye, a patient God of documentary making, and over 200 minutes, Ex Libris demonstrates all the brilliance of his best works. I wouldn’t be surprised if it won the Golden Lion – Venice has a history of awarding it to docs. He lets his subjects patiently state their own case – yes, buildings come alive under his camera – and that remains so here, where New York displays its rich diversity of subjects and histories.  It’s as if the written word springs off the page, out of the dusty old books, to become the mortar binding the great city together, its public library carrying the DNA of its past and future.

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