Standing in for libraries everywhere, the magnificent New York Public Library is explored and extolled in the great Frederick Wiseman’s latest ode to the importance of essential institutions in politically tumultuous times.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2018
Frederick Wiseman, cinema’s peerless documentarian of institutions, finally turns his lens on the cornerstone of every self-respecting community: the public library. Focusing on New York City’s century-old flagship, Wiseman’s approach is as always humane and low-key, with a healthy fixation on the people who fill its spaces and give them meaning. From budget meetings, to enthusiastic archivists and educators, to patient phone operators, to live events with the likes of Patti Smith and Richard Dawkins, the scope of NYPL’s service and its social and cultural value is quietly affirmed through Wiseman’s humble observational practice. There’s no need for talking heads to tell us why any of it matters, although there’s no shortage of conversation around digital inclusion and the new public–private funding era the library now faces, eloquently argued for by CEO Anthony Marx. Merely watching folks go about their business, free to think, feel and learn, is the simple ideal at the heart of this edifying and implicitly political film, where any questions about the relevance of libraries in the 21st century are firmly put to bed. — Tim Wong
“Wiseman never states outright what the library’s mission is; he doesn’t have to… It is a soaring, Utopian mission in a documentary that builds with intellectual force and deep emotion as it shows, again and again, citizens – interested, questioning, seeking – joining together to listen to one another and to learn from one another. In Ex Libris, democracy is alive and in the hands of a forceful advocate and brilliant filmmaker, which helps make this one of the greatest movies of Wiseman’s extraordinary career and one of his most thrilling.” — Manohla Dargis, NY Times