LOS ANGELES — Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman makes his films his way, and the way he makes them is reflected in how we experience them.
“At Berkeley” is Wiseman’s 38th doc in 43 years, and each of them, as titles such as “Public Housing” and “Boxing Gym” indicate, examines a different institution. “As in all my documentaries,” Wiseman writes in “Director’s Notes” for his new film, “I had no idea of the themes or structure until I was well advanced in the editing.” Similarly, audiences won’t fully understand the themes of this long and thoughtful film until they’ve experienced it for themselves.
Wiseman and his two-person crew spent 12 weeks at the University of California, Berkeley in fall 2010. With the university’s full cooperation (only tenure decisions were put off-limits), they shot 250 hours of footage, which took 14 months to edit to 4 hours, 4 minutes.
The film needs its length because, like all Wiseman films, it is strictly observational, making its points without benefit of interviews or voice-over. What it presents is an involving portrait of what’s called “one of the world’s most powerful knowledge-producing institutions” and an examination on how that institution is coping with a significant financial crisis.
One of Wiseman’s tenets is a refusal to identify any of the people he shoots, so the only individuals recognizable in the entire film are Berkeley professor and former Clinton Cabinet member Robert Reich and a silver-haired gentleman whom a small bit of research reveals to be Robert Birgeneau, at the time the university’s chancellor.
Wiseman likely feels identification would only get in the way of his aim, which is to provide snapshots of a culture, elements in a mosaic or, more prosaically, dots we have to connect for ourselves to make up our minds about the institution in question.
The “what is this thing called Berkeley?” part of the film begins slowly and takes its time, in part because of faculty long-windedness. As Reich is shown saying in another context, “people on the faculty like to speak, they’re used to hearing themselves speak and seeing other people nod.”
Among the teaching vignettes we observe are a Thoreau seminar discussing what happened at Walden Pond, Reich talking about the difficulty of getting lower-level folks to level with you in government, and a super-bright Ph.D. student talking about a system he is working on that appears to help people with paralyzed legs get mobile. Unwilling to leave an interesting conversation, of which there are many, “At Berkeley” lets people talk their talk.
What emerges is a picture of an institution that places a premium on the passing on of knowledge, a self-analytical place where process is important and the questioning of process even more so.
Right from the film’s opening, there is also talk of the Berkeley ideal, of the value of public education and the school’s founding notion that people should have access to higher education even if they are not members of the elite.
What gives “At Berkeley” special interest is that it was filmed at a time when the university was figuring out how to deal with a particularly difficult fiscal situation. California, which at one point in time paid upward of 40 percent to 50 percent of the school’s expenses, has dropped its share to 16 percent.
Coping with that loss of revenue without loss of academic excellence would be challenge enough without the school’s determination to continue to attract as diverse a student body as possible and keep itself affordable not only to low-income students but also to the children of the ever-imperiled middle class as well.
The various discussions, decisions and stratagems that cluster around this problem, discussed in classrooms and in intense meetings the chancellor has with his staff, are the most involving aspects of “At Berkeley.”
Among the fascinating conversations we hear include a back and forth about whether to match salary offers for faculty other schools are wooing, a debate on whether helping to pay for child care for younger faculty is discriminating against people who’ve chosen not to have children (this is Berkeley, after all) and a discussion on when outside police can or should come on campus.
While the non-intellectual part of the university is largely ignored — there is nothing in dormitories, little about sports and only one brief sequence involving fraternity life — “At Berkeley” does take pains to physically place us on the campus with numerous shots of things happening on its grounds, including concrete being poured, dogs playing Frisbee and a man walking a tightrope. Which is as good an image as any of how this storied institution is attempting to survive in parlous times.