Sydney Film Festival Review: Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (USA, 2017) is like a long, detailed book

The New York Public Library is one large institution. So it should come as no surprise that the documentary about it is also quite big and sprawling in nature. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is like reading hundreds of chapters from various books; you might learn something but that doesn’t change the fact it’s a tad long and incohesive.

This documentary is from Oscar-winning director, Frederick Wiseman. Those individuals familiar with his documentary-making style will know that he embraces an observational stance. This is a good thing except for when you have a documentary that is a tad overlong at 197 minutes. Ex Libris fails to use standard documentary-making techniques like titles, facts, a voiceover, an arc or narrative. Instead, short vignettes are spliced together to show you how all-encompassing a topic this actually is.

For those people who are unaware, libraries are no longer just repositories for books. They are a place that offer community services like classes for children and adults alike. They are spaces where intellectuals can gather to exchange highfalutin ideas, for individuals to share stories, for sick people to research their symptoms and even for homeless people to catch a quick nap indoors. There are even celebrities discussing their books with the likes of Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Richard Dawkins making cameos. They probably have several film’s worth of interesting topics to discuss between themselves alone.

While it is initially interesting to see some of the behind-the-scenes meetings and witness the planning that goes into the library, after a while this can get a little tiresome. Without any background context about people’s roles and how they fit into this organisation, this can go over viewers’ heads. There are also some individuals who dislike attending their own meetings and so would be disinterested in the machinations of the library’s administration. Instead, they would be more interested in the scenes involving things like the library’s extensive picture archive, which has influenced the likes of Andy Warhol and other artists as well as the reference to the Gutenberg Bible and other precious artefacts including those once owned by Winnie The Pooh’s creator, A.A. Milne.

Ex-Libris is an intriguing and talk-heavy documentary that manages to charm viewers and overwhelm them in equal measure. While Wiseman lives up to his name here and should be applauded for tackling such a huge topic and offering such a detailed view, the result is a little too much of a good thing. This poetic piece is often fun and like a love letter to libraries, but this labour of love ultimately shouldn’t be such a large labour for the viewer.


Ex Libris: The New York Public Library screened as part of Sydney Film Festival. For more details, head HERE.


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