Frederick Wiseman is a titan of American documentary cinema. The 87-year-old lawyer-turned-director’s extensive body of work puts him up there with the likes of Ken Burns, Errol Morris, and the Maysles brothers in the pantheon of filmmakers devoted to transposing American realities into American cinemas. Since his debut feature, 1967’s Titicut Follies, a sobering look at the conditions inside the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, Wiseman has set painstakingly examining just how places of work actually work.
His 45th film, Ex-Libris, premieres at the London Film Festival this week. Following on from his recent documentaries which held institutions like the National Gallery under the microscope, Ex-Libris is a three-and-a-half hour exploration of the intricacies of the New York Public Library. What he spies in the library’s various branches—87 of them split across the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island—is nothing less than than a kaleidoscopic vision of a city in a permanent state of flux.
There’s no narration, no conflict, no edit-suite drama conjured into being. We are, in many ways, left to explore the film as a library user with an hour to spare might find themselves drifting through the stacks. The camera aligns on heated discussions regarding the difficulties that arise from balancing public financing with private investment, atheism, Patti Smith, the cultural importance of Jewish delis, braille, Alice in Wonderland, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the existence (or not) of unicorns, Austrian genealogy, Ta-Nahesi Coates, and many, many other diversions. It is a timely and potent reminder that libraries really do still have a place at the heart of any community, however big or small.
We caught up with him to ask:
What drew you to the New York Public Library in the first place?
Fred Wiseman: I’ve been doing an institutional series over the last few years, and it made sense that a library would be a great addition to it. That’s why I decided to make the film. And the New York Public Library is one of the great libraries of the world. It’s up there with the Library of Congress or the Bibliothèque nationale de France, or the British Library. But I made the choice to film there specifically without knowing anything about it, or how it worked. It was a choice based on assumption, not knowledge. I had a sense that I’d find enough material there to make a movie. I’d not used a library, really, since I left college. If I wanted a book, I’d buy it, and if I didn’t have the money, I wouldn’t read.
I had thought of libraries as places to borrow books. I spent half a day at the main building on 42nd Street, in Manhattan, then half a day at three of the branches, in Harlem, the Bronx, and Staten Island. As soon as I visited those, I had an idea of the diversity of programming they offered in addition to the lending of books.
What’s the role of the NYPL in the city of New York?
My awareness of the role it plays in the city is a response to the people I saw in branches. The branches were crowded, of course. Hundreds of thousands of people use the library each year. In the movie someone quotes Toni Morrison as saying the library is the great democratic institution. An apt description. You experiences people of different races, classes, ethnicities. The rich, poor, and middle class use libraries. So in that sense, yes, it is a reflection of New York City. I’ve made all kinds of movies during my career, and some are more critical of places than others, but it’s always a report on what I find.
During the film, a senior member of the Library’s staff describes the NYPL’s digitisation process as “the Holy Grail of the 21st century.” Do you see it as being that important?
The hyperbole there is one thing, but I do think, and I admit I’m no expert on this but to me it makes sense, to have vast intellectual and artistic resources available to as many people as possible seems like a good idea. That kind of digitalisation plus the easy-availability of a library card making the internet easy to access to those who are in the digital dark, is a great thing.
What’s the general perception of libraries in America? Does that differ to how you view, or viewed them?
I have memories of my mother taking me as a child, and getting older and taking my own books out, and then using them at college to write papers, but I really never thought much about them before I made a movie. That might be an intellectual deficit of mine, but I just didn’t. I have to say that the variety, complexity, and reach of the programmes offered came as a very happy surprise.
Your filmmaking feels, to me, analogous, of Studs Terkel’s seminal American oral history work. Is that a fair connection to make?
We’re both connected by curiosity. I think we share not just a sense of curiosity, but also an interest in ordinary lives. Non-showbiz lives. We’re not interested in celebrity culture. It’s all about documenting the ordinary experience.
Is that curiosity what drives you to keep on making films at the age of 87?
Curiosity? No, it’s fun. The real answer is fun. Even if making a movie if intellectually and physically demanding. It demands all my resources. Shooting is demanding; you’ve got to be alert, respond quickly, think quickly, make decisions quickly. Editing is intellectually demanding too. Ex-Libris took 12 weeks to shoot and 11 months to edit.
Finally, do you think that the NYPL is, in some way, the mind of New York?
That’s a nice metaphor, for sure. In the sense that it contains, in its archives, a vast amount of information about the history of the city and it’s residents, yes. It’s more than that though. It isn’t just New York or America. It contains an intellectual history of the world.
Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library premiers on Wednesday 11 October 2017 at the BFI, Southbank.