BFI LFF 2017: Ex Libris: New York Public Library (2017)


There’s always a danger as a critic that you will say something in praise of a piece of work simply because, a) you don’t want to offend the filmmakers, and b) you don’t want to stand out as the only person who ‘didn’t like’ it. But considering that a critic’s job is to ‘criticise’, surely it’s their duty to point out when something is simply not that good? Well that’s the case with Ex Libris: New York Public Library, the new documentary by filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. The film which has, apparently, wowed audiences at various international film festivals including those in Venice and Toronto, though at times beautiful to watch, is in reality laborious and drawn out.

You should probably know what to expect when setting out to watch a work by Wiseman. Over a filmmaking career spanning fifty years, his documentaries – on subjects as varying as London’s National Gallery and the prestigious Berkeley University in California – have become renowned for their marathon running times – three to four hours plus is not out of the ordinary. However quantity does not mean quality, and watching films like Ex Libris: New York Public Library you question whether his work is really – if you dig beneath the surface – actually that remarkable.

Admittedly the film has its good points, revealing what life is like within the library and the machinations of its day to day running. From staff meetings to discuss the institution’s finances and direction in the digital age, to holding lectures by controversial English evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and looking at the work of the library’s various branches throughout New York, it is fascinating to discover how much more there is to an iconic establishment like the New York Public Library, than simply as a building to house books.

We are always brought back however to the film’s greatest failing – its length. At three hours and seventeen minutes, much of its merit is diluted by a lack of sharp, insightful editing. One can’t help feeling – due to his revered standing within ‘art house’ cinema, and the fact his films are distributed by his own company, Zipporah Films, Inc. – that Wiseman has reached such a level that people are scared to speak out against his work.

Sometimes there is truth in the old adage ‘less is more’. Which should unfortunately – one feels – be the case here. You’d be well advised to watch the film’s trailer and suffice with that, as it’s just as interesting, and more succinct, than the film as a whole.


Director: Frederick Wiseman
Runtime: 197 mins
Country: USA

Rating: ★★½☆☆


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