Monday, 2 April 2018

Review: Ex Libris

There are 92 branches that are part of the New York Public Library
I saw one more documentary as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. It's called Ex Libris by famed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman who is still going strong at 87 years of age.

When I saw the trailer for Ex Libris, I thought, why not? Looks interesting, a look at the New York Public Library. But then others pointed out it was three hours and 20 minutes long. Gulp. I already bought the ticket.

So this afternoon I sat at City Hall Theatre with some 200 other people and I wondered if they also knew how long this movie was going to be. Some did trickle out -- my row had the worst offenders -- there were only a few of us left when the lights came back on.

What was most annoying was not understanding what was going on. From the moment it started, there was no context, no narrator and no editing. Wiseman let people talk on and on... about what? I wasn't sure and wasn't interested.

One in three people have no internet access at home
But he covered many aspects of the NYPL, from the numerous branches around the Big Apple, to meetings with administrators on how to appeal for more money from politicians to deciding how to best use their budget. It was frustrating not knowing who these people were and the documentary would have benefited from a few captions but even more so a narrator to guide us through.

But that's not Wiseman's style. He wants you to be a fly on the wall to see what is going on in the library, be it watching people talking about knowing their rights as a mentally disabled person to get housing, to a job fair, to children singing Old Macdonald Had a Farm, to kids learning how to program robots, to highbrow intellectual discussions about books with people like Elvis Costello.

A blind person teaching another to use a Braille typewriter
It's not about the books per se, but how the NYPL is grappling with how to deal with the changing landscape of technology and how to best serve its users. The library is no longer just a place to read and borrow books; it is the first point of contact for many to get resources to find jobs, to get access to computers and the internet, to get help on school work to access to original manuscripts and letters.

I just wish it was all kind of condensed and packaged more neatly -- there were times people were making speeches that were passionate, but didn't merit 10 minutes on the screen, whereas watching a blind person show another blind person how to read Braille books was fascinating, along with watching an actor recording a talking book, or seeing how books were redistributed back into the system.

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman
Wiseman just wants you to see the library for what it is and then make up your own mind about it. Just wished I didn't have to sit through three hours and 20 minutes to do that...

Ex Libris
Directed by Frederick Wiseman


  1. It sounds like Wiseman did the same thing with his library movie as he did with his museum movie -- which I viewed about two hours of before walking out of the screening three years back...

  2. Hi YTSL -- "Meandering" is a great word you use!