In the fall of 2010, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman went back to school. He and a two-person crew embarked on a three-month project, auditing with their cameras a semester or so in the life of University of California at Berkeley. The result was 250 hours of raw footage, 246 of which did not make the final cut of this elegant, observant experience now at the Siskel Film Center.
"At Berkeley" is Wiseman's latest in a career devoted to the inner workings of American institutions, plus the occasional foreign object. His recent "Crazy Horse" was about the famous burlesque club in Paris. This time he wanted to dig into the state of public universities in this country.
In Wiseman's time-honored fashion, "At Berkeley" doesn't identify any of the camera subjects by name. We become participants, detectives, observers in each new boardroom, each new classroom. We are lost, right along with many of the students, trying to parse astrophysics or the poetry of John Donne. But Wiseman has a masterly eye for the ecosystem overall. Time and again we return to meetings held by top Berkeley administrators on the subject of budget cuts. The year Wiseman was filming, California state money accounted for 16 percent (down from 50 percent) of the UC-Berkeley budget of nearly $2 billion. That left a serious shortfall, with no easy answers on to make up for it.
The fragility of public education looms in the background of every scene, but, as always, Wiseman proves a wizard at shutting up and listening and learning. Throughout "At Berkeley" you're struck by the filmmaker's gentle insistence that any conversation, any meeting, every teacher/student interaction reveals a world of subtle power dynamics. There's a moment in the picture when former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is talking to his class and a hand shoots up, near the back of the room. Reich ignores it; he has too much more to say. It's a wonderful detail. So is the shot of the groundskeeper with the leaf blower, chasing a lone cigarette butt — fossil fuel dependency explained in three seconds flat, without words.
"I wanted to do a public university, and Berkeley is a great public university," Wiseman told one interviewer last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film made its premiere. "The cliche is that as goes Berkeley, so goes education in America. It's a cliche that I think is true. The financial problems that Berkeley has been facing, and is facing, are the same in all the state universities."
The film covers student protests (of course; it's Berkeley) and Thoreau, campus security seminars and a painfully honest revelation from one fraught student about the clique-y, exclusionary nature of his study groups. In recent years, as he has all his life, Wiseman has made relatively compact films (his gorgeous "Boxing Gym" runs 91 minutes) and spacious ones ("State Legislature" runs 217). "At Berkeley" is a tick longer than four hours in length, and it feels just right.
"At Berkeley" -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating (some language)
Running time: 4:04
Opens: Friday at the Siskel Film Center