At Berkeley is the latest opus from veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who has been documenting human behaviour in various contexts for upwards of 40 years, and has perfected a purely observational style that dispenses with narration and the overt directorial fingerprints of intertitles and interviews in favour of placing the camera in the middle of a room and watching conversations unfold.
By that token, 244 minutes of university seminars, lectures and administrative meetings may sound dull, but Wiseman’s gentle, seamless editing and delicate storytelling allow these voyeuristic sequences to build meaning en masse – an effect that, by the time the credits roll, is truly staggering. By mixing classroom discussions on social policy in a post-financial crisis America with the bureaucratic realities that the Chancellor’s cabinet deal with behind closed doors, a full picture starts to appear.
Students are encouraged to aggressively question and criticise, but cynicism is staved off as discussions range from access to education and the rise in college fees to the invisible prejudices that haunt even a world-class institution like Berkeley. Meanwhile, the administrative staff deal with diminishing public funding to keep the university accessible in testing economic times – a particular coup, and recurring theme, being that they had just admitted the most scholarship-assisted students in Berkeley’s history. So when, around the three-hour mark, a student protest breaks out, demanding “no cuts, no fees” and occupying one of the college’s libraries, we’re treated to both sides of the matter – and wonder whether, in this intellectually engaged community, such action is tolerated and even encouraged as an expression of the students’ passion.
But to focus on that thread would be to ignore the little glimpses of campus life that Wiseman wisely inserts among the discourse: close-harmony groups, a robotics lab, the Kronos Quartet in concert, poetry readings and, in the film’s closing moments, a lecture on human life on other planets open up the film even further, adding up to a voluminous observation of American higher education in action.