Ex Libris: A Conversation with Frederick Wiseman

Ex Libris: A Conversation with Frederick Wiseman

In his latest film, the legendary documentarian journeys through the splendors of the New York Public Library and deconstructs the meaning of books, reading, and learning in the age of Trump.

September 29, 2017

For the last 50 years, Frederick Wiseman has been a singular documentary filmmaker. His unique style—no voiceover narration, no interviews, no text on screen—has made him a pioneer of the genre. But the mark of a Wiseman film is not limited to its style. His work frequently centers on institutions, and occasionally a town or neighborhood. Taking his camera into spaces where those with authority interact with those who are vulnerable—a hospital, a welfare center, a police unit—he’s offered some of the most vivid depictions of the power that institutions have over the least powerful.

Wiseman’s latest film is no exception. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library presents the myriad services that the NYPL provides to the public and the challenges its administrators face in private. He moves from a job fair and a braille class to senior staff worrying about funding and how to adjust to the digital age.

Unlike some of Wiseman’s earlier films—which Patricia Aufderheide, an American University professor of communication studies, says had “a jaundiced view of institutions and the way they shape and condition and limit behavior”—Ex Libris portrays an empowering and fundamentally democratic force.

The library’s president, Anthony Marx, talks about digitizing information as a way to combat inequality. “The vast majority of the books, archives, images in this building and throughout our system, indeed throughout all libraries, is not available online,” he says. “That is the holy grail of the 21st century: it’s what this technology wants to make possible.” Later in the film, we see him deliberating with staff about what the library should be doing when one-third of the city doesn’t have access to broadband. 

Wiseman takes us back and forth from the NYPL’s main branch, known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, to smaller, local branches throughout city to provide a sense of the library’s core missions: preserving and distributing texts, materials, and artifacts; offering programs, courses, and public discussions (with Richard Dawkins, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, and Ta-Nehisi Coates); and, the library’s true nucleus, providing access to learning and knowledge for anyone who wants it.

Erik Madigan Heck

Frederick Wiseman

In a particularly poignant scene, one man explains to a group at the Macomb’s Bridge Library in Harlem: “I couldn’t afford to go to film school. I learned from the library. I learned how to type. I learned how to read a script. I learned how to do all that from the library. People say, ‘Why didn’t you go to school?’ I was taking care of my kids. I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t find no job. So I learned from the library.”

Wiseman’s first film, Titicut Follies (1967), takes place in a Massachusetts state prison for the criminally insane. A disturbing look at penal abuse, it shows how the inmates were treated not as human beings who need care but as problems that need to be managed. The film elicited widespread outrage and led to calls for reform. In High School (1968), a Philadelphia school does what it can to maintain order while the students come of age in a time of vast social changes. But in Ex Libris—as with another of his recent films At Berkeley (2013), a sweeping examination of the University of California, Berkeley—those with power are not agents of oppression, but stewards of an ideal.

Shot and edited in his style that scholars call cinéma vérité or direct cinema (terms Wiseman hates and rebuffs), Ex Libris also has a lot to say about the function libraries can have in the current political climate.

In the film, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, former president of the NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, gives a speech in which he quotes Toni Morrison calling libraries “the pillars of our democracy.” He then recalls watching Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, holding the second meeting notes of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a seminal organization of the Civil Rights Movement that he chaired from 1963 to 1966, which are now held in the Schomburg Center’s archives.

“We should all be so fortunate to make some ‘necessary trouble,’ Lewis always says of his civil rights past, and to have that trouble preserved so that future generations will learn and, when necessary, be prepared to do the same.”

After filming, something happened that Wiseman did not anticipate and that has massive implications for the ideals libraries uphold—the election of Donald Trump. During a recent interview in New York, Wiseman discussed his filmmaking career and explains that he made his 42nd documentary without America’s current president at all in mind, and yet made a film that reflects, in his words, “the anti-Trump.” “The activities of the library are in such stark contrast to what Trump represents,” he says. “Inadvertently, it becomes a very political film.”

Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

The American Prospect: How did you come to this subject? What made you want to make a film about the New York Public Library?

Frederick Wiseman: Well, as you know, I’ve been doing an institutions series. I thought, “What about a library?” It wasn’t because of any knowledge of the New York Public Library or any knowledge of libraries. I just thought, I’ll roll the dice this time with a library.

Do you have a personal connection to libraries?

I grew up in Boston and before I was old enough to go on my own, my mother would take me to get books. I used to like doing that. I read a lot. And I used the library in college. But after that, as I could afford to buy books, I would always buy books.

Before I started this film, I had no idea of the diversity of activities that take place at the NYPL. I found out on the first day I was there, right after they gave me permission. I spent half a day hanging around the Schwarzman Building. Then they took me on a ride to some of the local branches in Staten Island and the Bronx. I went to a small library in Harlem, and I went to a couple of others. I began to get an idea of the variety of work being done at all of them.

It seems that this film [Ex Libris] is kind of a companion piece to At Berkeley, or if not a companion piece, it at least has some serious similarities.

Yeah, it’s related. I mean, because of all the obvious reasons. Books, ideas, learning, classes.

The nature of the institution.

The nature of the institution. Berkeley is dedicated to higher learning and to helping people discover knowledge, as is the library.

Some people think that documentaries always have to be about terrible things—exposing things dealing with cruelty and injustice. I’ve made my share of films like that, or at least in part like that, never totally like that. But I think it’s just as important to show people doing good, kind, and generous things as it is to show them doing banal, cruel, and horrible things. Sometimes you get both in the same film.

If you look at your earlier films—Titicut Follies and High School, for instance—the people who hold positions of authority are often contemptible, or at least they act contemptibly, but in this movie, as with in At Berkeley, they are admirable.

Yes, right. But that’s not because I’ve changed, I don’t think. It’s because, in my view, you couldn’t make a movie about Bridgewater [State Hospital], where I made Titicut Follies, without showing how horrible it was. But even within that context, the guards were in many ways more tuned in to the needs of the inmates than the so-called middle-class professionals, those psychiatrists. The guards were poorly educated, poorly paid, poorly trained. They did some cruel things, but they were ignorant. The middle-class professionals had no excuse.

High School is a sad comedy. Sad because the values that were being transmitted to the students were so banal.

When did the filming for Ex Libris take place?

I started the first week of September 2015 and ended the first week of December. It was over three months in the fall of 2015.

Courtesy of Zipporah Films Inc

Still from Titicut Follies, Wiseman's 1967 film about the patient-inmates of a state hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts

It’s hard to watch this film now and think about everything it provokes you to think about—the meaning of libraries and their democratic character, the ideal of providing access to information and knowledge for anyone who seeks it, the programs there to help immigrants and low-income communities—and then not think about the way those in the highest positions of power—

Obviously, when I made the movie, I didn’t have Trump in mind. I finished editing it two days after the election. The election was November 8 and I finished editing November 10. But I mean, the library is the anti-Trump, because everything in Trump’s Darwinian views—not that he knows who Darwin is—reflects a lack of knowledge, a lack of curiosity.

His effort to cut the endowments and his wish to get rid of PBS, his indifferent attitude to all the programs that are meant to help immigrants and poor people, it’s just against everything the library is trying to do. So inadvertently, it becomes a very political film.

It may have been political to some extent even before that, but the activities of the library are in such stark contrast to what Trump represents—and the contrasts are ugly.

There’s also the effort we watch people go through to connect with, and help connect others to, the fact-based universe. There are obviously a lot of concerns right now about what Trump, and by extension Trumpism, is doing to break down the fact-based universe.

I don’t know whether—I mean he’s going to succeed to some extent, obviously. But it’s also part of an overall effort to dumb-down American education.

You could make the argument that Trump’s election is a triumph of the failure of American education. There’s certainly an effort, sometimes rationalized in terms of not having enough money, but behind that there is, I think, a deliberate effort to minimize the humanities or get rid of them where possible. Humanities are the first thing that always gets cut.

It seems to me—well, we know actually because of some of the interests of the Koch brothers—that there’s an interest in dumbing-down, in eliminating courses in history and political science and philosophy, courses that teach you what’s gone on in the past [and] how to think about current events. That’s part of the current climate. And the library represents the opposite of that.

In the past you’ve resisted being called a “social justice filmmaker.” Why?

The films are concerned with it, but what I’m trying to say is that I don’t make one-sided movies. I don’t make didactic films, or at least I try not to make didactic films. I’m not trying to make a film to prove a thesis. It’s not that I’m not interested in social justice, or whatever that might mean, but it’s too narrow. What I’m trying to do, or at least what I think I’m trying to do, is to present as many different aspects of human behavior as I can in the context of the film.

For example, with Law and Order, the film I made about the police in 1960, the police don’t come out as heroes or villains. They’re sometimes heroes and they’re sometimes villains. I avoid the notion of making my films all have heroes or all have villains, because what’s important to me is to make a film that accurately reflects the experience I had making it.

It’s not that I’m not totally against the cop who strangled the woman accused of prostitution in Law and Order. It’s not necessary for me to underline that. You see it. And you say, “Oh, my God!” But on the other hand, you see cops doing lots of helpful things. So I guess when I say that, I mean that I don’t make, or I try not to make, one-dimensional films or films that have a preconceived point of view. I’m not trying to convince you of anything.

That is something that others, like Michael Moore, very explicitly try to do.


Courtesy of Zipporah Films Inc

Students construct robots as part of an afterschool program at the New York Public Library, depicted in Ex Libris

Yeah, it’s totally the opposite. I mean, Michael Moore’s movies are about Michael Moore. He’s the subject—[as is] any movie [that] expresses the view of the filmmaker. I don’t think he’s—maybe it’s not nice to get into this for the point of the interview—but his movies are visually not particularly interesting and there are various aspects that I think are inaccurate, if not outright lies. I mean, his view of the Cuban health system, for example, is a joke.

Who are the other filmmakers today—or those you consider your contemporaries—who you admire?

I like Errol Morris’s work and I’m particularly an admirer of Marcel Ophuls, who unfortunately is not working anymore, because he can’t get the money. But Hotel Terminus and The Sorrow and the Pity are two of the greatest films ever made.

What about growing up? Who were the filmmakers who really influenced you?

Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Preston Sturges.

A major issue in Ex Libris—Anthony Marx talks about it over and over again in the movie—is the digitization of library materials. Some people talk about the digitization of information as the democratization of information. You also see the administrators struggle over determining the library’s role when one-third of New York City doesn’t have access to broadband. At what point did you realize this was going to be such a huge theme?

I had no idea before filming that staff meeting about how many millions of people didn’t have access to broadband. I don’t know that I even thought about it. But I like to think that even with things that I haven’t thought about, I’m tuned in enough to recognize their importance when I hear them.

That’s an example of why it’s so interesting for me to make movies, because they make demands on all aspects of your being. You have to be physically fit and you have to be awake and you have to be aware.

When I’m editing, I have to think—whether it’s true or not is another matter—that I understand what’s going on in a sequence in order to decide, one, whether I want to use it; two, how I want to cut it down, because inevitably it has to be shortened; and three, where it should be placed in the structure. All of that demands—the material demands—that you think about it. You’re using, or at least you’re trying to use, all the different aspects of yourself.

When you start a project, what’s your process? How do you organize each day and decide what you’re going to film?

A lot of it depends on the place. If it’s a small place, like the welfare center, it’s much easier to move around. But a place like the New York Public Library—I knew I wanted to follow the senior administrators, because that’s where the big issues were being discussed, although I didn’t really know what the big issues were at first.

I keep a little notebook that has a calendar organized by date, where I organize things that I know will be happening, and I would go to those. There were also days when I would just walk around the Schwarzman Building or another branch. Anything interesting that’s going on, you shoot.

It’s always a combination of chance and a certain degree of deliberateness, because sometimes it’s knowing a meeting is going to take place. But even when I know that a meeting is going to take place, I never have an idea of what the content is going to be. So when you go to a meeting, you just shoot the whole meeting; when it gets dull, you shoot cutaways. But you basically have to be prepared to shoot the whole thing, because you don’t know what’s going to happen or which way it’s going to turn or when somebody is going to say something more interesting.

How do you figure out how to structure the film?

The structure makes it or breaks it. I don’t begin to think about structure until I’ve edited all the sequences I think I might use.

You edit the sequences one by one and then try to fit them into a structure?

One by one, yeah. Then the structure emerges from the process, because I don’t have the structure in my head over here and the editing of the sequences over there.

The structure emerges from where I think I’ll try to start the film. I started Ex Libris in four different ways. Then I thought, I’ll try Dawkins. As soon as I saw the Dawkins sequence, I thought, “Okay, that works for me.” It’s trial and error.

One of the things that Anthony Lane wrote about in his New Yorker review is that books don’t seem to play a primary role in the library anymore. Everyone there is on computers and other devices.

I won’t make any comment on Anthony Lane’s review, but almost every sequence in the movie has to do with books. I mean, books don’t make very interesting shots. So you don’t see too many books.

But I was in the Jefferson Market Branch the other day and I looked—with the Anthony Lane review in mind—and counted how many people were reading at one of the big tables. There were 15 people at the table and 14 of them had computers. Now, they may have just been looking at the internet in general, but chances are that many of them were connected to the library and were reading material that the library had digitized.

Courtesy of Zipporah Films Inc

New York Public Library

I want to stay away from same questions you always get asked, like why you disdain the term cinéma vérité and reject that it applies to you—

Well, I just think it’s bullshit. Cinéma vérité—I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again, is a pompous French term, because the idea that the movie is representing truth, however casually the term cinéma vérité may be thrown around, is nonsense.

The other one is fly-on-the-wall, which I just hate.

There’s an essay by Andrew Delbanco in which he reports that you once said you preferred the term reality fiction.

No—this was a long time ago. It was around the time that Capote’s book, In Cold Blood, came out and he was yapping on radio and television about how everything was true, and I sensed at the time that half of it was made up. So I came up with the term reality fiction, because I liked the contradiction between the two words. I said it as a joke and it got picked up.

Do you think about your legacy? What do you want it to be?

No, I don’t know. I hope people will watch the films and think about what I was trying to do. The crucial thing for me in making the films is that it’s fun to make them. I have an interesting life, because I get to make a movie almost every year, which means I get a chance to think about a new subject every year. However the movie comes out, I have a good time, and an interesting time. It’s not that it’s easy. It’s not. It’s demanding—in every way. But it’s a very interesting life. That has nothing to do with legacy, but obviously, I hope the movies endure.

When you talk about your life like that, it sounds like yours is, to some extent, peripatetic.

It is peripatetic. But it’s peripatetic part of the year and then completely oriented in one place for most of the year, because once I get involved in editing, I don’t move. You know, I work seven days a week, because the only way to get the movie done is to sit in a chair.

Do you know what your next project will be?

I do, but I don’t like to talk about it until it’s done. That’s partially a fear of jinx, partially paranoia.

Do you think the politics of the moment will affect your filmmaking going forward?

You can make the argument that, indirectly, all my films are political. They will continue to be in that indirect, oblique fashion. I don’t think my films will be any more overtly political than they have been.

Ex Libris is very political, not because I set out to make it that way, but because circumstances have underlined the difference between what you see in the film and what Trump is trying to do—and, in many ways, doing.

Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris will be showing in select cities nationwide throughout the fall. 

You may also like