Film Review: Ex Libris

By Brooke Raymond

ExLibrisIf you work in a library, or care about learning or community, I encourage you to see Frederick Wiseman’s most recent documentary, his 41st, the Oscar-nominated Ex Libris. Filmed exclusively in New York City, Ex Libris beautifully elevates the day-to-day machinations of the New York Public Library’s four research centers and eighty-eight neighborhood branches in three boroughs (Brooklyn and Queens have their own separate library systems) into art, beauty, and service to the human community. While the movie is over three hours long and challengingly has no narration or title cards to indicate who is speaking, it is a fascinating study of the intersectionality of all members of the community.  We see young students practicing their reading and computer coding after school, seniors disco dancing, and patrons borrowing hot-spot devices with their library cards. Everyone knows where to go to get what they need.

If I had to capture Ex Libris in a word, it would be alive—the film is as vibrant and multicultural and varied and interesting as New York City itself. The documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, is a 1954 graduate of Yale Law School—a choice partly inspired to earn a deferment from serving in the Korean War. Wiseman has spent his career exploring the inner workings of institutions and how these organizations exist in a symbiotic relationship to their host communities.

Wiseman states that the library is “probably the most democratic institution that exists because everybody’s welcome.” You can certainly see that in action in this film. Some sequences display assembly lines of books, films, and music being processed to show us BookOps in action—the centralized intake nerve system where all acquisitions take place and materials enter the system in Long Island City. One example of an outer limb of the apparatus can be seen in the picture collection founded in 1915 that is the world’s largest circulating free picture file used by nearly every historical working artist in the city.

The movie inspires one to become more involved with one’s community. The library is shown in all of the myriad ways it engages and provides services to wherever people are when they enter the institution. It also inspires lifelong learning with popular programs such as Books at Noon, robust job fairs that take place at a Bronx library branch, and Live at the NYPL with Paul Holdengraber, whose enduring goal is offering interviews “to make the lions roar, to make a heavy institution dance, and when successful to make it levitate.”

One memorable scene for me takes place at Macomb’s Bridge Library branch in the Bronx. One visitor shared his background and stated that as a young man he could not afford to attend film school. Instead he learned typing at his local library branch and he also studied filmmaking from books found in the collection. The library was his ersatz film school. This gentleman’s story echoes the sentiment that the library is “the poor man’s university.”

A consistent theme of the movie is “Where Do We Go From Here?” NYPL President Tony Marx talks about how local libraries are no longer passive repositories of books, but instead have evolved to become engaging community education centers. Ex Libris is fascinating to watch and shows multifaceted aspects of the library and its caring staff in action.  I encourage you to check it out so that it might inspire you to bring your best self to all of your interactions with your library patrons and the community.

Note: The Ex Libris DVD will be available for sale in March 2018.

Film Review: Invoking Justice

c834By Susan Gualtier

In my spring 2014 FCIL research seminar, I explored the idea of using documentaries to provide a visual representation of unfamiliar legal systems. One of the films that I chose to screen was Deepa Dhanraj’s 2011 documentary, Invoking Justice. The film was very well received by the students and led to several interesting group discussions, both during class time and on the course website. Student feedback strongly suggested that they found the film enjoyable, that it helped them to understand how religious (and, to an extent, customary and mixed) legal systems work, and that it encouraged them to think about how one might research legal issues or handle cases arising under these systems.

Invoking Justice focuses on a specific type of legal tribunal in Southern India, where family disputes are settled by local tribunals called Jamaats. These tribunals, which apply Islamic Sharia law, are made up entirely of men. Not only are their cases decided by men, but women are not permitted to be present at the Jamaat meetings and therefore have no opportunity to defend themselves or to present their side of the dispute. Invoking Justice follows a group of women who, recognizing the discriminatory nature of the all-male Jamaats, formed a women’s Jamaat in 2004 where local women could settle their family disputes or report discriminatory treatment by the traditional male Jamaats. By the time the film was made, the women’s Jamaat had already settled more than 8000 cases, “ranging from divorce to wife beating to brutal murders and more.”

The film suggests, though not overtly, that the women’s Jamaat functions not only as a tribunal, but also as an enforcement mechanism and advocacy organization. Its members are shown approaching male Jamaat members to questions their tribunals’ decisions and processes, and using the police force to compel male defendants to attend women’s Jamaat sessions when they do not take the tribunal seriously. Dhanraj follows several of the Jamaat’s cases from beginning to end, which helps to unify the film and provides a narrative element. The film also portrays the power that comes with open communication; the women’s Jamaat has been a galvanizing force for women in the region, and groups of women are shown in animated discussions of topics that would previously have been considered taboo in a public forum.

Invoking Justice is entertaining and visually appealing, and provides an excellent insight into how one form of local tribunal might operate. It also illuminates substantive issues relating to family law and women’s human rights under religious and customary law systems, and addresses issues of discrimination not only in the law itself, but in the procedural practices of the tribunals, the application of the law, and the enforcement of the tribunals’ judgments. Because there is no prerequisite to my FCIL research seminar, I have found that, by necessity, it must serve as a crash course in international law and world legal systems in addition to developing the students’ research skills. Having searched for a film that would entertain the students while at the same time illustrating the issues surrounding religious law, customary law, and informal tribunals, I found that Invoking Justice was an excellent choice. Invoking Justice is distributed by Women Make Movies and can be purchased from their website. My study guide for the film is available online through SlideShare.

On Film and the FCIL Librarian

by Susan GualtierTwo Movie Tickets In Front Of A Take Clapperboard And A Reel Of Movie Film

Hello everyone, and welcome to the newly re-booted FCIL-SIS blog. As a member of the Publicity Committee and a blog administrator, I am so excited to see what you all choose to share in this new format! We have a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks. Volunteer bloggers have been flooding in, and you can expect to see book reviews, articles, and posts from a number of different conferences appear over the course of the next few weeks.

When Neel, Loren, and I began talking about potential blog content, one thing that I very much wanted to introduce to the blog was a series of film reviews. While book reviews are valuable indeed, I’ve noticed that law librarians don’t seem to pay quite as much attention to newly released films. I wonder why? I’m sure that we would all agree that films can provide students and other patrons with a wealth of information, as well as a wonderful visual representation of how the legal system works. This is particularly true in the area of foreign, comparative, and international law, which many researchers find… well, foreign.

Imagine trying to describe a religious or customary law system, for example, to a student who has never or rarely left the United States. This was my experience with some of the students in my FCIL course at LSU. Conveying the concepts of customary and religious laws, making the students understand that these systems are not inferior to common and civil law systems, describing how a customary law tribunal might operate or even what a courthouse or lawyer’s office might look like in a developing country – all of this, I realized, would be more meaningful and would make more sense if I could provide a dynamic visual depiction of the topic rather than relying solely on static photos and verbal description.

This year, the second year that I taught the course, I introduced documentaries for the first time. During the course of the semester, I screened two films, Invoking Justice and Justice for Sale, both of which I hope eventually to review for this blog. I also made several other films, both fictional and documentary, available to the students through my course reserves. Although screening two full length documentaries meant setting aside about three hours of class time, the students responded extremely well, and the screenings generated a lot of conversation both in class and in the online discussion forum that I set up. Providing the visual seemed to help the students to feel more comfortable with the foreign legal systems, as well as to identify potential obstacles in researching the laws of the countries depicted and to think about how they could overcome them.  This in turn led to a greater willingness to take on complicated topics in their final papers, rather than remaining within their comfort zone by choosing common or civil law topics.

As selectors, we certainly need to think about how film can support our patrons’ needs, even if we choose not to use it in our own research instruction. Whether we use film to support our own teaching mission or purchase it in support of others’ scholarship, it is important that we, as law librarians, stay on top of the best and most recent releases. You will see film reviews appearing in future blog posts written by myself, Don Ford, and other volunteers. I hope that you will find them enjoyable, and that they will lead you to explore more fully the possibility of using film in research instruction.