Frederick Wiseman has made first-rate documentaries on his own terms for a half century, delving into the nuances of institutions and communities from the inside out. From his seminal 1967 portrait of a mental hospital in “Titicut Follies” to last year’s “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” the 88-year-old non-fiction legend continues to shoot and edit his sprawling portraits with a slow-burn, inquisitive style unparalleled in his field. You don’t watch Wiseman movies, which are often distinguished by epic running times, so much as you live in them.
“Ex Libris” is no exception, but recent events turned this 197-minute deep-dive into the functions of the city’s literary institution brought a whole new context to the project, even to the filmmaker himself.
“Trump made it a political film because it represents, in my mind, everything he doesn’t believe in or doesn’t understand,” Wiseman said, on the phone from his home base in Paris. “The movie itself is not ideological, but in the current political atmosphere, it becomes that.”
In fact, by its very existence, “Ex Libris” celebrates an intellectual process under constant threat by today’s governance. A brilliant three-hour-plus meditation on social consciousness may face tough competition in the Oscar race — where crowdpleasers like the Jane Goodall portrait “Jane” and “Faces Places” hold momentum alongside the timely Russian doping exposé “Icarus” — but “Ex Libris” did manage to crack the 15-movie documentary shortlist, and deserves serious consideration from any engaged Academy voter attuned to the best options on the ballot.
Though the indefatigable Wiseman tends to plow ahead with one project after another, “Ex Libris” has remained in the conversation with Gotham and Cinema Eye nominations in addition to the shortlist, and the filmmaker has taken the opportunity to explore the new context that Trump has brought to the project.
According to Wiseman, the library is “probably the most democratic institution that exists because everybody’s welcome. You see all social classes, races and ethnicities represented without discrimination amongst them. All that is something Trump doesn’t believe in. He’s against immigration, he cuts health and education programs to the core. He doesn’t believe in scientific knowledge. Everything that Trump represents is completely contrary to what the library represents.”
Wiseman had finished the project when the election took place, and like many people, did not expect Trump to win. He insisted that he would not have made the movie any differently, because “Ex Libris” deals less with threats to the library’s existence than it exalts in its multifaceted value. Wiseman’s camera lingers in conversations with authors, musical performances, classrooms and board meetings, all of which amount to a measured breakdown of the daily struggle to Make American Smart Again.
“The movie itself is not ideological, but in the current political atmosphere, it becomes that,” Wiseman said. “I didn’t set out to make that. I set out to make a movie about what I found at the library. But it exists in the political context of what’s currently going on in America.”
He was especially attuned to the library’s support system, and the contrast it strikes with a government averse to such efforts. “What you see is people with good will and intelligence trying to do something about it as best as they can,” he said. “You see rich people supporting it, and New York’s sympathetic government trying to expand its capacity and reach.”
Few filmmakers shift their priorities decades into a storied career, but Wiseman isn’t like most filmmakers. He maintains tight control over every facet of production, and the end result places the viewer inside his head, gleaning details as he takes gazes deeply into the daily rituals of modern civilization. As a result, his latest string of movies can be seen as a meditation on various interconnected American processes.
“Ex Libris” is another microcosm of New York’s ecosystem following 2015’s “In Jackson Heights,” and furthers the behind-the-scenes look at the canonization of art found in 2014’s London-based “National Gallery.” However, the big picture on the governmental challenges facing education — an elephant in the room throughout “Ex Libris” — stretches back to 2013’s “At Berkeley,” his sprawling look at the inner workings of UC-Berkeley.
While shooting the project, Wiseman realized that the venerated university relied heavily on private funding due to a dearth of support from the state. “I became aware of the concerted political effort to dumb down American education,” he said. “The guise of cutting budgets on state universities is a consistent political effort in the interest in having a society of technocrats.”
During the shooting of “Ex Libris,” Wiseman saw a distinct contrast to that lack of support. “You learn in the film that the city council is raising its budget back to where it was before the crash in 2008,” he said, singling out “the complexity of the political process that led to support of the library to deal intelligently with the city agencies that helped fund the library.”
By Wiseman’s own account, he’s made only one overtly political film, 2007’s “State Legislature,” which explores the Idaho Legislature and — by his own estimation — anticipates the evolution of the Tea Party. “The ideas that they were espousing became the Tea Party,” he said. “There are a lot of people who represent a far-right point of view in that movie. It’s quite funny, actually, I think.”
Of course, words like “funny” take on new meaning in the Wiseman Expanded Universe, which demands patient viewers willing to meet him on its own terms. The filmmaker’s take-no-prisoners approach has never wavered. “Part of my job in editing this film was to have it fairly reflect the complexity of the subject matter,” he said. “I never try to simplify. I do my best to express the complexity of the activities that take place at the institutions that are my subjects.”
He has no interest in cutting down his epic running times to accommodate restless viewers. “I try to figure out what I think, rather than indulge myself in some speculative fantasy about an audience, because that’s basically bullshit,” he said. “I try to meet my own standards.”
The political climate may change the way he talks about his movies, but it’s unlikely to change the way he makes them. Don’t expect Wiseman to veer into Michael Moore territory anytime soon. ” I don’t think didactic films convince anybody,” Wiseman said. “I don’t like to make overtly ideological films. The way to change politics is to be active in politics. There’s a lot of self-deception amongst people who make overtly one-dimensional political films because they preach only to the converted.”
Ever the realist, Wiseman acknowledged that he might have a hard time getting “Ex Libris” in front of the most influential government figures determining the future of education today. “It’s hard to get a committee at Congress to watch a three-hour movie,” he said, “but maybe we can get some of their staffers.”