Ex-Libris: New York Public Library

Posted by Laurence Green

"The film emerges as a thought-provoking, beautifully shot love letter to the model of inclusion and knowledge sharing and a topical reminder of the preciousness of libraries everywhere" writes Laurence Green.

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“Libraries are not about books, libraries are about people”, a leading architect remarks and this comment could not be more apt about legendary 88 year-old documentary film-maker Frederick Wiseman’s invigorating now film, Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library (ICA and selected cinemas)

In his latest endeavour to explore the great American institutions, Wiseman turns his inquisitive eye on the splendid New York Public Library. It encompasses 92 branches throughout Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island and receives 32 million online visitors annually. NYC’s beloved institution is an incredible source of knowledge as well as community support for all the city’s inhabitants, no matter their social status or ethnicity.

Wiseman goes behind the scenes to record the animated board meetings, talks with guest speakers such as Richard Dawkins, Patti Smith and Elvis Costello, book club events and donors’ dinners, as well as the day-to-day activity of lending books. Classes and lectures are delivered to groups of all ages on a wealth of topics: the history of slavery and poverty in communities of colour; the nuances of interpreting theatre by and for deaf audiences, blind and partially sighted people learning how to read Braille. Even the sexual subtext of the overstuffed pastrami sandwich is discussed. Elsewhere telephone enquiries are answered and we see library-goers use the facilities for research and educational sessions. The film acts as a fly on the wall – there is no commentary at all – at behind the scenes meetings between the library staff, often focusing on how the institution will survive in the modern age and addressing such thorny issues as funding.

The patient observational style that Wiseman brings to the documentary combined with his deft editing, draws you into this fascinating world, though at just over 3 hours, the film is overlong and would benefit from some judicial pruning as repetition tends to creep in towards the end. But thankfully this does not diminish its overall impact.

The film emerges as a thought-provoking, beautifully shot love letter to the model of inclusion and knowledge sharing and a topical reminder of the preciousness of libraries everywhere.

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