Ex Libris – Frederick Wiseman (2017)

When I wrote about Frederick Wiseman’s Welfare not so very long ago, I did mention how difficult it was to classify Wiseman’s films as slow cinema. They are not slow in itself, but what makes it rather complex is the director’s in-depth observations that result in films that run for three or four hours. I should be careful and I know that I run the risk of equating length with slowness, which is not always the case. Nor is it a standard of Slow Cinema. We all know that directors such as Lav Diaz, who combines cinematic slowness and long duration, are rare. And yet, it seems impossible not to speak about Frederick Wiseman’s new film Ex Libris.

Ex Libris is the latest of Wiseman’s 40 odd films that explore, for the most part, American institutions and American society. As he explained again during the Q&A which followed the screening at the Théâtre National de la Bretagne in Rennes, these films become films only in the post-production. He tends not to prepare for his films. Instead he goes out and shoots, which, I believe, frees him from certain constraints. If you don’t know anything, you are bound to observe everything in order to learn how things work. He told us outright that he was at the NYPL only once in his life, and that was over 40 years ago. He went out without any knowledge but with the goal to find out about how this institution works. Now, at this point I feel the almost desperate need to mention that I have no respect for viewers, who believe that they know better, that they know how some directors work on set and the director doesn’t know what he himself/herself is doing. I listened to a Q&A with Béla Tarr once, after the screening of his last film The Turin Horse (2011) in Edinburgh. Some viewers took Tarr for a liar and pretended they knew what he really did or had in mind when he was on set. Some viewers tried the same with Wiseman on Sunday and I salute his inner peace! I’m sure it’s not always easy to stay calm in Q&As when the viewer thinks s/he’s king!

Wiseman’s new documentary is an almost three-and-a-half hour look at the New York Public Library. I expected a lot of scenes of people reading, researching, writing. I got almost nothing of it, because Wiseman focused on the many identities that libraries have nowadays, and perhaps must have in order to survive. The documentary’s title is a clever choice, allowing for several associations to pop up in your head once the film is running. Wiseman shows several different sites of the library, which is not at all connected to one place only. On the contrary, the New York Public Library has 87 branches and although Wiseman’s film is pretty long, it shows only a fraction of the work that is being done across those branches. And this work is impressive.

As one architect, who was amongst the finalist for redesigning one branch (or a centre? Memory fails me.) said, libraries are no longer a simple stockage for books as they used to be. Libraries are – and Wiseman shows this throughout his film – a community hub. It is a space for learning, in some ways like a school, and yet very different. People learn to read Braille; they visit workshops in which they learn about links between Marx and Lincoln; they attend public talks by authors who talk about their work (one subject I can remember dealt with Islam and slavery); they come into the library to dance, to look at rare objects in galleries/museums, to meet other people; they come to learn how to use a computer. The New York Public Library does it all, and more. Behind the scenes, Wiseman shows us how intensive the discussions are in the executive board about future goals, about how to remain relevant and justify the funding from the city they have asked for. What is it that they want to do next? What should their focus be? Is it Bestseller books, or rare research items? Is it primary education for children before they even go to school, or is it helping struggling teenagers?

Wiseman shows all of that. He records live sessions with artists and authors, but also official speeches by the director of the NYPL, or by the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He records people at the help desk; students who work with the library’s picture collection; children experimenting with robots; or a poet who wonders “What is a man?”. The director very much shows the ex, places emphasis on it as if to bring home the idea that a library is no longer just a library in the original sense. Whenever he shows scenes of quietude and peacefulness, i.e. the very essence of a library (in my mind, using it as a research place), he cuts away quickly again. Wiseman doesn’t dwell for very long on the library as a harbour of quietude. Rather, he shows the buzzing nature of it, of what it has become. This is, to me, unfortunate, because he ignores the readers and researchers who spend hours in the library in order to progress in their work. It’s their place, it becomes their home for a period of time. At the same time, I might well be stuck in my head with this image of a library being a stockage of books, which, as Wiseman perfectly demonstrates, really isn’t the case.

Ex Libris is a film to be seen this year (or next!). It’s a through investigation of the ex and of the essence of a library in our time. Without being slow, it takes its time to look at the various aspects of the life of a library as institution, as social hub, as meeting place, as a business, as a concert place, as a school, as a museum, as a research hub… Wiseman shows the fascinating diversity of what’s going on in this “stockage place of books”. Rather than being a place of quietude, it is, in fact, a beehive where something happens all the time.

Welfare – Frederick Wiseman (1975)

In past years, several people have pointed out the work by Frederick Wiseman to me, in particular whenever I spoke of Lav Diaz and his rather long (feature) films, which explore the history and trauma of a country and society in depth. I have to admit that now that I have seen my first Wiseman film, I don’t quite see a relation to Slow Cinema the way I feel it, or would perhaps define it (if I had words for it). Nevertheless, there are some specifics that are quite interesting to consider in terms of slow film, perhaps also, yes, in relation to the films of Lav Diaz.

First of all, Welfare is an almost three-hour long documentary. Indeed, this goes against the usual perception of a documentary. There are exceptions like Adam Curtis’ pieces, but overall documentaries (just like feature films) tend to have industry-imposed time limits. Wiseman doesn’t seem to care about this, and this allows him to go into such depth that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Welfare is a long-form documentary that has a scope similar to slow films in that he shows vertical time. You might remember from earlier posts that I spoke about horizontal and vertical time, the former being a simple advancement of the story without going into too much depth. A vertical treatment of a subject is based on the director’s taking his time. It’s about feeling, psychological depth. It’s about the character first, the story comes second. Vertical time is usually something poetic, which you might think isn’t present in Wiseman’s film. And yet, you will find everything that is characteristic of a vertical story treatment.

Welfare places emphasis on those who are seeking help and feel like hamsters in a bureaucratic wheel. In several long-takes – I believe one is even longer than 10 minutes which is unusual for a documentary – he films conversations between those who seek help and those who decide about whether they can eat on that same day, or whether they have a place to sleep. Some conversations, cases, problems, feel endless, repetitive, often painful. But Wiseman keeps filming. He wants to get to the bottom of the pain that is so often forgotten in bureaucratic systems. This is the vertical you can usually only see in slow films. It’s vertical time that comes to the fore and it is because of this vertical time that Welfare has such a strong effect on the viewer. It’s like reading an 800 page novel and you get to know your character in such a way that you really identify with him or her. You know every single trait of that character, you have time to draw parallels between you and him/her, you actually have time to consider what’s happening to the character.

This is Welfare. It’s an 800 page novel. Perhaps it’s not slow, but it’s detailed, focused on individuals who are usually marginalised and forgotten. It’s vertical in its treatment of the subject, or rather subjects. The film is not only about the failing welfare system in America. The documentary shows several other facets of society, amongst them blatant racism. It is a portrait of America in the 1970s, and, perhaps crucially, it is a portrait of America today, because as far as we can gather from news items, very little has changed. The end of the film is quite interesting. It hit me and hurt me. Having lost his comfortable job with an income of $20,000 a year plus more for other work, having lost all his research work (stolen from him), his accommodation, having fallen from a hardworking successful member of society to a homeless man who needs to steal in order to survive, all of this after a stay in hospital and being told afterwards that he would no longer be able to work – this man, this character who sums up everything we have seen in the previous two hours plus, predicts that there wouldn’t be a United States of America anymore at the end of the 1980s if nothing changed. People would leave the sinking ship. It would be interesting to see the same documentary playing out in 2017…

Welfare is not a slow film. This much I can say. Nevertheless, the link to slow films and in particular to films by Lav Diaz, who uses long duration (and cinematic slowness) for an in-depth exploration of an individual’s pain, is clear. What both Slow Cinema and Frederick Wiseman’s work share is the use of vertical time, of duration, in order to get to the bottom of pain, of despair, of injustice; in order to make the viewer feel this pain, despair and injustice; in order to use their films as a cry for help.