The first thing you need to know about documentary maestro Frederick Wiseman is that he never uses a narrator.
In all of his films, including the terrific new Ex Libris: New York Public Library (showing Saturday at the Dallas VideoFest event DocuFest), Wiseman drops you into the center of a world or an institution — a public hospital, Neiman Marcus, or, in his new film, the library — and asks you to join him as a fellow fly on the wall. His storytelling comes in the editing process. His choice of which sequence leads to the next goes a long way toward laying out his point of view.
The process has served him well, ever since his first feature, 1967's Titicut Follies, brought viewers inside a hospital for the criminally insane. At 87 he remains a filmmaker of infinite patience, and he demands the same from the audience. Most of his recent films, including National Gallery, At Berkeley, In Jackson Heights and Ex Libris, run over three hours. But they rarely feel like it. You tend to forget you're watching a film when you watch these docs, much as Wiseman's subjects seem to forget the camera is rolling.
"When my films work, I think they work because you're placed in the middle of what's going on, and you get enough information within the sequence to understand what's happening," Wiseman says by phone from Paris, where he lives for several months of the year. "So there's a sense of immediacy and presence and participation that's not there in a film with narration."
In Ex Libris that means spending time with the reference librarians who answer any questions the public might have, including whether or not a unicorn is a real animal. It means sitting in on board meetings, getting front row seats to hear Elvis Costello, Ta-Nehisi Coates and other guest speakers, and visiting an after-school program in the Bronx. Wiseman lets each scene build; he's never in a hurry.
He shot 150 hours of footage for Ex Libris, which makes the three-hour running time seem a pittance.
Wiseman is among the last surviving pioneers of direct cinema, a school of documentary filmmaking that creates the illusion of life unfiltered and asks the viewer to question the relationship between cinema and reality. Its masters include Wiseman, Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter), Robert Drew (Primary) and D.A. Pennebaker (Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back). Wiseman's specialty has always been institutions: the public university (At Berkeley), the juvenile justice system (Juvenile Court), the department store (The Store, about downtown Dallas' own Neiman Marcus)
"What I'm looking for are interesting sequences, or at least what I think is interesting," Wiseman says. "In Ex Libris I want to give a sense of routine activities at the library. With a place as big as that, you can never get everything, but you can begin to suggest the variety, diversity and enormity of the services they provide."
Wiseman's more recent films seem more interested in celebrating institutions that work, rather than coldly observing ones that don't. Ex Libris is a work of optimism, a toast to an organization vital to its city's civic health.
You might not think a three-hour movie about a library could be so moving. You'd be wrong. That's another thing about Wiseman's films. Much like life, they're full of surprises.
Plan your life
Ex Libris: New York Public Library shows 11 a.m. Saturday as part of DocuFest. Studio Movie Grill, 10110 Technology Blvd. East. DocuFest runs Thurs. through Sun. For tickets and more information visit videofest.org.