NZIFF – At Berkeley
Coming to At Berkeley as an employee of a University, with an interest in this famous academic institution, rather than as a Frederick Wiseman fan, I had little idea of what to expect. While not averse to long run times—At Berkeley weighs in at four hours and change!—I did not expect to be so thoroughly captivated by a purely observational documentary of this length. Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall shooting style and intuitive editing give At Berkeley an easy flow that carries you along as the daily goings-on of the campus are unearthed. And flow the camera does: across lawns, looking down on roofs, observing lecture halls, labs, meeting rooms, and sports fields. Wiseman and co do a pretty thorough job of surveying a cross-section of the breadth of campus life, threading their way back and forth through the various stakeholder groups and their activities with an even-handed representation for all. This can be seen in the example of a large planned political protest involving students, faculty, and non-academic staff. The film includes footage of the university administrative staff planning security and logistics for the event ahead of time, the protest itself and the speeches by various group representatives—including sequences in the midst of their several hour occupation of one of the library buildings—, the response meetings of the university management team to the list of ‘demands’ presented by the protesters, as well as commentary from non-participating students.
Lengthy sequences of lecture content, research lab work, or administrative meetings are interspersed with lingering shots of students relaxing on the lawn, campus security doing their rounds, janitorial or grounds staff at work. Wiseman and co make effective use of sound, quite often carrying diegetic sound from one scene over into the next helping tie together what could feel like a piecemeal affair into a cohesive whole. Wiseman’s brand of patient observation has a storytelling logic all its own. Themes slowly emerge and cohere as the subjects slowly paint their own portrait—and what a fascinating picture it is. In the case of At Berkeley, although the school’s rich history of political agitation and academic notoriety is never directly addressed this history informs and colours almost all discussions and decision making that occurs. The value of public education and its funding is engaged by the institution’s administrative function, the body of protest, and in the classroom. Likewise the impact of the changing economic environment is debated on an academic level and met head-on in the realities of student hardship and the need for the university to creatively address significantly decreased budgets whilst remaining true to their core ethos of equality of access to education for all. Despite these all surrounding, ever-changing pressures the work of teaching, learning, and research continues uninterrupted with students and faculty various engaged or yawning as interest sparks or wanes. In what other work of cinema could you observe students debating changing socio-economic class structures, a veterans student group on campus ‘manoeuvres’, research testing robotics-assisted walking suits on a paraplegic subject, the work of the single remaining lawn maintenance staff member, or an astrophysicist-researcher proclaiming “Measuring dark energy is…difficult”? From where I’m sitting At Berkeley is four hours very well spent.