Disclaimer: At Berkeley was viewed in Paris, where it is now playing in cinemas. It has been placed within our Sydney Film Festival coverage because it screens at this year’s festival.
At age 84, Frederick Wiseman shows no signs of slowing down. At Berkeley is his 42nd feature-length documentary, and is one of two new films by the director that will feature at this year’s Sydney Film Festival (the other being his 2014 Cannes-selected National Gallery). As with the majority of his films, At Berkeley was funded primarily by the United States public broadcaster, PBS, and after a brief run on the festival circuits at the end of 2013, it received its television premiere in January of 2014. The film, which has a run time of over four hours, was played in primetime without interruption, a testament to the strong working relationship that has developed between the station and the director over 45 years.
Wiseman’s body of work has shown a remarkable level of consistency over the years, both in terms of content and form. His subject matter has been almost entirely American, documenting institutions – schools, the U.S. military, the courts – cities, hospitals, welfare offices, as well as more intimate and small scale establishments (his aptly titled Boxing Gym being an excellent recent example). His films share an ascetic, almost austere style which eschews many of the more intrusive tropes of documentary filmmaking: no verbal commentary, talking head-style interviews, music, title cards, or even subtitles identifying people on screen. In short, Wiseman is the fly on the wall to Michael Moore’s fly in the soup, a quiet, observational stylist whose best films provoke a kind of meditative reverie in the viewer.
In At Berkeley, Wiseman turns his attention to another of the country’s major cultural institutions, University of California, Berkeley, which he described in a recent interview as “the best public university in the world.” The director and his small, utilitarian crew were given carte blanche by the university chancellor to shoot on campus and reserved the right to full editorial control of the film, a quite noble insistence on transparency befitting of a public institution such as Berkeley. The crew spent three months on campus during the Autumn 2010 semester, during which time they amassed 250 hours of footage. Part of the strength of the material that constitutes the film itself lies in the diversity of activity that it captures. We are privy to, amongst other things, faculty meetings, classes ranging from theoretical physics to zoology, student activist gatherings, a dean’s receptions to the teaching staff, and discussions by campus security guards.
Over the course of the film, we learn of the cuts to university funding from the Californian state government following the global financial crisis. An increasingly worried-looking dean listens to various suggestions from his advisory staff on how to manage the disinvestment of hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding. The inevitable cuts that occur provoke an angered response from student activist groups, whose protest march and responses are documented during the film’s last hour.
A different director may have pitted these antagonising forces against one another into a more coherent, linear narrative arc – a kind of social-democratic remake of Eisenstein’s Strike, moved from the factories to the campus. Indeed, Wiseman has described his approach to editing in terms of the creation of a dramatic structure, working as a sculptor does with a block of marble to carve out the dramatic contours that speak to the reality of his subject.
Yet there are moments in the film that undercut the propulsion of narrative momentum. In an early scene, a robotics student spends three minutes sending prompts to a machine to try to pick up and fold a tea towel. Watching the arms of the robot slowly manipulate the towel is oddly beguiling, and the scene offers some respite from the mounting political tensions developing either side of it. More than that, it speaks to the great strength of Wiseman’s filmmaking, which is his ability to hold our attention to these minute details that are unchained from a broader dramatic arc. It is a cinema of attentiveness, drawing on the minutiae of its subject matter – the rhythms of speech of the university’s dean, the professor who is self-conscious about how much he uses his hands when he speaks – as much as it does to the broader picture.
At Berkeley is an exceptional addition to one of the strongest corpuses in documentary film, and will be a highlight at the upcoming Sydney Film Festival.
At Berkeley screens once only at SFF, on Saturday 14 June. Tickets can be purchased here.