Over the years, veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman has covered what sometimes feels like almost kind of institution and every aspect of life in America (and occasionally, life abroad too). "Titicut Follies," "Juvenile Court," "Zoo," "Racetrack," "Central Park," "Public Housing," "Boxing Gym," a pair of movies focusing on teen education, and many, many more, he's covered the gamut. Now, aged 83, Wiseman, like Rodney Dangerfield before him, is going Back To School...
Having already tackled "High School" some time back, the director has graduated with "At Berkeley," an expansive, lengthy (a touch over four hours) and totally brilliant film taking a look behind the scenes of California's legendary institutions, from the school's professors and administrative staff to the students of almost every stripe.
Presented, as ever with the director's work, without narration, much in the way of score, or even on-screen captions, the film picks up at something of a crisis point in the university's history: for all of their research success, state funding is at a historic low, and as a result, tuition is going ever upwards, and staff are feeling the squeeze. And over the course of 244 minutes—a lengthy stretch for sure, but it feels much brisker, and never boring—Wiseman presents vignettes of the people who make up the university community, building up a subtle narrative thread.
Most people, be they student, staff or lecturer, are seen once and never again, although there are a few recurring faces, mostly among the university's administrative staff. But the mosaic-like approach that Wiseman favors means that you end up with a hugely comprehensive overview of the place—arguably more so than you'd actually get from attending the place, with the camera going everywhere from board meetings and the campus cops to lectures and seminars across a wide range of subjects, from English Literature sessions about John Donne to a PhD student working on bionic legs for disabled soldiers.
Wiseman's clearly enamored of the place, but it doesn't come across as a promotional film—it's notable that the title is "At Berkeley," rather than say, "Berkeley," a reminder that it's about the people, rather than the place. The choice of UC Berkeley is very deliberate, though: unlike many other top colleges, it's a public university, with the emphasis on public. By showing the wide range of disciplines and people involved, Wiseman's mounting a defense not of Berkeley specifically, but of the importance of higher education in general, and it's damn convincing one. It's the best kind of advocacy doc: one that doesn't feel like it's advocating for anything until you walk out of the theater and realise what it's been fighting for.
Still, Wiseman reserves some healthy skepticism for some of those on his side. The film's at its most compelling and narrative-driven when covering a student protest in its final hour, and the way that he contrasts the muddled messages and self-serving agendas of the protest's leaders with the quiet exasperation of the university higher-ups is both hilarious, and very familiar to anyone who would have liked to get involved with student politics, but were put off by the people already involved in student politics.
And yet Wiseman has bigger concerns on his mind. The carefully selected scenes are, for the most part, all centered around the theme of community, with the way that the university benefits culture as a whole by drawing people together foremost on its mind. That's why Wiseman has picked Berkeley over some Ivy League school, and it's deeply heartwarming stuff. And that's why, after four hours, you wouldn't cut a frame—you need all this material to form this microcosm of America.
Some might feel that this sort of thing is nothing new for the director—he's certainly used institutions as metaphors for the United States as a whole in the past. But this feels like one of his best pieces of work to date, as fully realized and satisfying a film as he's made in the last 50 years. It's a state-of-the-nation masterwork, a vitally important piece of work, and should be seen by as many people as possible. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Venice Film Festival.