Dear Fernando—and welcome Kelley!
This year at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) I thank our lucky stars that we have a third and new member among our correspondents: Fernando, meet Kelley; Kelley, Fernando. Ironically, as we add a new critic, TIFF is subtracting films, for it was announced back in February that this autumn festival would lose something like 20% of its massive lineup, which numbered 296 features last year. The number of features cut isn't quite that high, but any regular TIFF-goer certainly knows that this festival's identity—note, not brand—is mostly founded on numerical plethora rather than a notable curatorial perspective on the year's movies.
The most obvious result of the culling in the 2017 lineup is that the Vanguard and City to City sections are gone, and the absolutely essential Wavelengths—the defining program of Toronto’s festival and key to its current reputation alongside the more debatable and vague notion that future award-winners play there—is cut to the bone. How this trimming effects our experience as audience members will soon be seen, though I must note my disappointment at the elimination the festival’s collaborations with local art galleries. The gallery shows TIFF has put on over the years greatly increased the diversity of expression and experience the film festival provided, as well as helped encourage out-of-town guests like myself to explore the host city beyond the central festival boundaries. It took a 45-minute walk from the magnificent TIFF Bell Lightbox to get to the gallery showing Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra’s audacious, multi-screen, multi-hour installation Singularity last year, but the traversal across the city, chatting with others who risked the trip and the time away from the festival proper, and then, of course, plunging into Serra’s absurd, engrossing tale of gold mining and sexual exploitation remains one of last year’s most memorable highlights.
We’ll soon immerse ourselves into the films chosen by the festival this year, but it is always important to think of the institution making those choices and try to define not just the intent behind those decisions, but to characterize the ultimate result. To look at the close-up and the long-shot, so to speak. This just so happens to be the methodology practiced by the director who, for my money, is the greatest living American filmmaker: Frederick Wiseman. I was lucky to catch his great new documentary before it screens at the festival, and it provides a wonderfully hopeful and necessary vision of the inspiration that can be created and nurtured by a mammoth cultural institution.
With Ex Libris, Wiseman returns to the city of New York after the Queens borough collage In Jackson Heights with another opus that looks at a dense, living ecosystem, seeing it as a embodiment of an American ideal and struggle. Where the great documentarian’s 2015 picture surveyed the melting pot of the Jackson Heights neighborhood, finding within an exemplary diversity of race, nationality, religion and sexual orientation, all inextricably intertwined with threats of gentrification, discrimination, and commercialization, Wiseman’s new work explores New York’s public library system to find a complex, contradictory model for democratic thought.
“A library is not about books—that’s what a lot of people think, that it’s a storage place for books,” says Francine Houben, the creative director of the firm chosen to re-envision and remodel New York’s iconic, lion-guarded Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. “It is about people,” she corrects, and a place for them to gather knowledge. This could serve as a guiding theme for Wiseman’s characterization of the library system—which ambitiously spans three of New York’s five boroughs, serving Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island—that is variously a research archive, a circulating library, and, perhaps above all, a community hub. “Access to information combats inequality,” a staff member says early in Ex Libris, and Wiseman showcases how the hub of each branch in the greater urban constellation of the library system provides patrons with access to the knowledge within (the permanent collection, the floating books, reference librarians) and knowledge without, providing Internet access to a city one quarter of whose population, according to a 2014 study, does not have access at home.
At the same time, various branches—including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem—provide various talks, discussions and performances which give the institution essential pedagogic and cultural functions. Wiseman selects these very carefully indeed, many a comment on the filmmaker’s own practice that is so deeply reflective about the makeup and functioning of his country: Elvis Costello remarks on political anger in his art over time; Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses how black oppression is a statement on the human condition; Patti Smith welcomes digressions in her favorite memoirs; and artist Edmund de Waal, who works in porcelain, remarks that “the manner of what we make defines us.” Lectures and classrooms cover topics ranging from the origins of anti-slave trade movement in Africa and the various overlap and divergence of attitudes towards slavery between Marx and Southern ideologues, to the evolution of Jewish delicatessens in New York and erroneous school history books. It’s not just that the NYPL teaches, Ex Libris asserts, it is that it teaches where America came from and how it got to be what it is today. More practically, how to simply subsist in the city is also showcased as an institutional goal, as we see job fairs—with local business owners and a fireman passionately extolling their vocations, while a Homeland Security officer flatly reads from a patriotic script—and workshops on how to navigate New York City with a disability, as well as how knowledge and experience are transmitted to the blind and to the deaf.
This being a film by Frederick Wiseman, the front-facing side of the library is not the only one shown, and we get a fair dose of administrative meetings that turn over just what the value of a library is, especially in a digital age. In one wry sequence, the film offers a montage of the extensive print archives of over 100 years of city newspapers, while in the quiet of the background we hear the nearby sounds of cellphones receiving texts and incoming emails. Patrons variously use the computers to find local churches or to shop online, while a scholar plunges into the book archives to research Yeats. “We’ve always had to prove we’re relevant,” remarks one librarian. Where the system’s limited resources should go is another point of debate—digitization? Ebooks vs. physical books? Improving the research collection?—as indeed is where these resources come from. Houben points out that in her native Holland the government fully pays for the libraries, seeing it as an investment in its citizenship. In New York, the library struggles to get both private investment and funds from the city, forever tying the development of education and community to budget and publicity concerns.
Shot in 2015 but edited through the 2016 election, Ex Libris comes at a desperate time for advocates of knowledge, teaching, literacy, historical analysis and positive community building—the very things for which Wiseman suggests the New York Public Library is a bastion. In 2015, as we can very well see by the sometimes shabby interiors, strained arguments, often underpopulated events, and understaffed facilities, this redoubt was already under siege, perhaps most of all by those who think the mere existence of digital technology renders what a library is—as an idea, as a repository of knowledge, as gathering of tools and experts for public use, and as a physical space—a thing of the past. What Ex Libris so brilliantly does is sketch the entirety of a system that has been built—and is evolving—to improve the future.
We will wait, probably unfulfilled, for Wisman to turn to making a documentary about a film festival, as it is another kind of lugubriously mutable embodiment of cultural taste-making, rendered in equal parts by backroom negotiation, unseen politics and the self-presentation the public enjoys. It might do us well for us to think of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival like this director would think of it as a subject: A sprawling institution made up of contradictory impulses and facets, presented as a meeting point of art and commerce, needing to please both many and a few in largely divergent ways. So: let us now turn our eyes, naturally skeptical but looking for joy wherever we may find it, towards the 2017 festivities!