A California University, in Crisis Yet Still Thriving ; Frederick Wiseman Chronicles the Inner Workings of Berkeley

Article excerpt

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 voiceover.

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. …

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