Runs Fri., Dec. 6–Thurs., Dec. 12 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 244 minutes.
In his close looks at how systems function, the esteemed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman favors the fly-on-the-wall style. Some of those systems are as large as Madison Square Garden or the Paris Opera ballet, some as small as a homely boxing gym in Austin, Texas. Given his free-ranging curiosity about subject matter, it’s surprising it took Wiseman this long—At Berkeley is his 42nd film—to come to a major U.S. university. But it turns out his timing was very, very good.
The film was shot in 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley, not long after the housing bubble and recession; the school now gets a fraction of its former state funding. Wiseman finds administrators scrambling to make ends meet and students searching for ways to voice their fury about rising tuition at a once-free public institution. It will take Wiseman just over four hours to burrow through the layers of life at Cal, and the length allows him to challenge your expectations of what a 21st-century university must be like. A long early classroom sequence at first appears to embody the kind of liberal hand-wringing that is assumed to go on in progressive schools (the lecture subject is race). But watch the sequence continue and see how forthrightly the students stake out their own nuanced positions while listening to others give theirs.
Although we graze through classrooms and hear about Thoreau and physics, the real meat of At Berkeley is in the administrative conference rooms, where the overall impression is of decent, occasionally exasperating people actually trying to thrash their way to good decisions. This is mostly true even when, in the film’s second half, the “story” is dominated by a student protest. Here, the school officials try to devise proper responses while students try to figure out what exactly they’re protesting.
Wiseman’s hands-off style is ideal for letting us think what we want about all this, but the cumulative effect of At Berkeley is a ringing appreciation of discourse itself. Yes, the bureaucratic terminology and careful back-and-forthing of department meetings must be wearisome at times, but the movie is insightful in its depiction of the value of people sitting together in rooms and talking. Which sounds a lot like one of the founding ideas of a university.