‘At Berkeley': A Lengthy Look at the Modern University

By Mark Walsh — November 25, 2013 3 min read
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I must confess at the outset that I’ve never seen more than a few snippets from Frederick Wiseman’s first two education-related documentaries, 1968’s “High School,” about a large Philadelphia school, or 1994’s “High School II,” about Central Park East Secondary School in New York City.

But after watching Wiseman’s newest film, “At Berkeley,” about the University of California’s campus in that city, I’ll probably go back and watch those earlier works. Wiseman is known for doing documentaries his way—lengthy examinations of institutions, cinema verité style, without narration or even subtitles to identify people or places.

“At Berkeley” is Wiseman’s 38th film, and it clocks in at 4 hours, 4 minutes. While that may sound long, it’s a refreshing change from the slew of “reality” shows and documentaries that are overproduced with invented story lines and excessive after-the-fact reflection and narration by the same subjects of the “real” scenes.

The film has opened for short cinematic runs in various cities in recent weeks, including next week in Berkeley, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Silver Spring, Md. It is slated to air on PBS early in 2014.

‘At Berkeley’ Trailer from The Playlist on Vimeo.

The University of California at Berkeley, we are told early on by a staff member, was modeled on Harvard and Yale, but with diversity in mind—"an ideal that people should be able to study even if they weren’t members of an elite,” she says.

Wiseman and his crew have a lot of access to that core function of the modern university—the staff meeting. We are taken several times into what seems to be the cabinet or senior staff meetings of the university’s chancellor. (Though not identified in the film, some quick research identifies the chancellor as the affable yet decisive Robert J. Birgeneau, a Canadian physicist who stepped down from the post earlier this year.)

Wiseman filmed at Berkeley in the fall of 2010. If there is a hint of a storyline in the documentary, it revolves around the university coping with a significant decline in state aid, which has resulted in layoffs, furloughs, and an increase in student fees. A student protest is in the offing, leading one administrator to reminisce about the 1960s-era protest line that was a play on IBM computer cards: “I am a human being. Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate Me.”

For his interstitial scenes, Wiseman seems obsessed with Berkeley’s manicured lawns (which are apparently being kept manicured with only one working lawn mower, an administrator says). In one such scene, a maintenance worker revs up his leaf blower repeatedly to blow a single leaf across a plaza. Just avoid some noise pollution and pick up the damn leaf!

When not focused on administrators, the film gives us a broad taste of the intellectual life of one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities.

One English professor is shown at length discussing Henry David Thoreau, while another dissects the sexual metaphors in John Donne’s poem “To His Mistress Going to Bed.”

There is much from the sciences, as well: a student with an apparent spinal-cord injury being helped in a Berkeley lab to use mechanical legs; a lecture on breast cancer genes; students dissecting birds; a physicist explaining the origins of the concept of time.

There are only spare scenes featuring student life: ROTC students training at daybreak; students flinging Frisbees and walking slacklines; student drama productions; a look at the women’s field hockey team and the marching band at a Cal football game. There is a scene of a small, racially diverse group of students discussing the ever-present issue of racial diversity. Two African-Americans lament having to be the spokesmen for their race in class discussions.

Wiseman almost entirely skips any scenes of student social life. Students are most prominent in the protest against increased fees featured in the last hour of the film. One says, “How much did [1960s Berkeley free-speech advocate] Mario Savio pay when he stood on these steps? It was free.”

Students march across campus before taking over a library reading room. This scene is entertainingly spliced against those from a meeting of top administrators, who fret about how to respond to the demonstration. They “receive” the protestors’ unwieldy list of demands and attempt to show solidarity with a statement calling attention to the fact that the number of low-income students on the campus was actually up that fall.

The protest ends peacefully. When viewers see Wiseman’s film in five or 10 years, it will probably resonate as much as it does today. There will be budget pressures on the university. Intellectual life will be just as vibrant. And the lawns will have to be cut and the leaves blown around.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.