Frederick Wiseman's movie, "At Berkeley," shows aspects of life
at at a university that is receiving less and less public funding.
It has taken Frederick Wiseman 45 years to get from high school
to college. The master filmmaker's latest portrait of an
institution, "At Berkeley," centers on the University of California
in Berkeley and joins an extraordinary resume that stretches back to
"High School" in 1968 and his controversial debut, "Titicut
Follies," in 1967. In between, Mr. Wiseman has established himself
as one of America's greatest chroniclers in any medium.
"What I'm interested in is making movies about as many different
subjects as I can, and as many different forms of human experience,"
Mr. Wiseman, indefatigable at 83, said in a phone conversation
during his summer break in Maine.
His output seems to have matched his ambition. "At Berkeley," his
40th feature, will have its world premiere on Sept. 2 at the Venice
Film Festival. It joins a cinematic panorama of subjects whose
understated titles belie their depth: "Basic Training," "Welfare,"
"Meat" (meatpacking plants), "The Store," "Boxing Gym," "Ballet,"
"Deaf" (special-needs school), "Belfast, Maine." The richly observed
films are sprawling and intimate, dense with the raw material of
human endeavor and discourse, and free from the ready-made
storylines and messaging of mainstream documentary, much less
In "At Berkeley," we witness the autumn 2010 semester at a
university in crisis, yet thriving. Mr. Wiseman uses the
institution's settings -- the meetings, classes and protests -- as
stages to play out its multifaceted drama of people and ideas. A
student's tears at a financial aid session turn the moment into a
portrait of middle-class America on the ropes. Budget meetings show
the struggle to maintain the values of public education, and create
a profile of a leader in then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. A goal is
scored in a field hockey game. Former Secretary of Labor Robert
Reich in a lecture makes an example out of a valued former aide who
was unafraid to criticize him. And -- this is Berkeley -- a reading
room is occupied by the latest generation of student activists.
"I deliberately contacted Berkeley first," Mr. Wiseman said. "For
two reasons: It's public and it's a great university."
Mr. Wiseman made his pitch in a letter to Mr. Birgenau, who
promptly invited the filmmaker to visit. By the end of lunch
together, the filmmaker had permission to shoot at will -- with the
exception of tenure discussions -- and began production in the
autumn of 2010. With the paid assistance of a former chief of staff
for chancellors, John Cummins, Mr. Wiseman picked his way through
the campus, amassing 250 hours of footage over 12 weeks of shooting.
While his recent films, "Boxing Gym" and "Crazy Horse," are
essentially confined to single-building locales, Mr. Wiseman and
John Davey, his longtime cameraman, traversed a campus of 1,232-
acres, or about 500 hectares, for "At Berkeley." Its students,
faculty, staff and local residents number in the tens of thousands,
"with all the problems of a small city," Mr. Wiseman said. Like any
good navigator of gatekeepers, the filmmaker cultivated his sources.
"Secretaries or administrative assistants are always very
important people for this kind of a movie, because they know what's
going on," he said.
What was going included budget wrangling after a steady decline
in state financing for the university: from 54 percent of the budget
in 1987, to 12 percent in 2012, according to The Daily Californian,
the campus newspaper. Mr. Wiseman said that wasn't why he made the
documentary, but Berkeley ends up serving as a bellwether for the
broader predicament of public institutions under economic pressures
and anti-government politicking. While Mr. Birgeneau has been
criticized for his handling of the budget, "At Berkeley" depicts a
delicate balancing act with an eye toward preserving scholarships
and teaching standards. …