Frederick Wiseman would not be a name if there weren’t a cause for him to put that name forward for. Not so many directors get into the business because they see a certifiable public need for one, or at least not as many as there should be. Though his career has almost certainly steered into safer waters across the past 50 years, neither Wiseman’s first or latest films could be claimed as business maneuvers. The former, Titicut Follies, is likely to remain his most daring, brazen portrait, made with a clear disdain for the insane asylum system it’s depicting and heartbreaking empathy for the inmates it shows. At Berkeley couldn’t be further leagues from that first film, peering into a less controversial institution with less deliberate prejudice shown in his representation, but still coming at it with a refusal to compromise the elements that make this institution unique.
Cycling in at just over four hours in runtime, At Berkeley doesn’t aimlessly wander onto campus on any normal day. The impetus of the film is University of California: Berkeley’s budget issues causing the price of education to rise for students. It seems a bit of an elitist move to choose a universally recognized and branded school to focus in on, but Berkeley could just as easily be replaced with any collegiate system existing nowadays. Their halls, classrooms, libraries and fields are certainly wider, grander, and more ravishing than those most of us are/were educated in, but that lends it less of a demeaning quality towards the audience and more of an epic, extraordinary scale to it. It’s like we’re headed to Hogwarts, except the lessons actually matter and the stakes are much higher than Voldemort’s strictly cartoonish and unpolitical motivations. #WillNeverForgiveDeathlyHallowsPart2
Its immense duration ought to be even more incredibly beleaguering given the distention of time already inherent in the documentary format. Normally the quick editing of testimony and insistent information makes the experience feel longer, but At Berkeley unfolds through extensive scenes of discussion that thankfully offset that nontemporal hysteria. Time is suspended while in class, allowing us to really sink into the matters being discussed, though this approach admittedly demands an intense degree of attention from the audience. This isn’t leisurely cinema of obvious attractions, but lecturely cinema of intense dialogue both between the onscreen characters and towards us observing from off the screen. If you’ve ever sat through a 3.5 hour class, you’ll recognize the uniquely beleaguering sensation, but if those who conjure the patience and interest for it may find themselves invested in the density and variety of the film’s talking points.
Wiseman’s form of filmmaking is much less focused on style than it is on content, which one might expect would include a great deal of unnecessary fat across 240 minutes. It’s to the credit of Wiseman and his excellent team that the original 250 hours shot are pared down to only the moments that bolster each other in their singular, or often multifaceted, focus. The bulk of the long scenes is taken up, or at least seems that way, by faculty discussions on issues of budgeting, campus security, and superficial necessities like campus appearance. Such moments may bore the tits off viewers, statistical details whizzing by through expressionless dialogue that one hardly believes Wiseman expects us to understand. This tedious backpatting, where all suggestions receive polite nods without the debate needed to arrive at a logical solution, might just be irritating if the film didn’t itself address those staff meetings in another scene. This isn’t just observation, but commentary on what’s being observed, a definitive staple of Wiseman’s films.
If these moments only serve to infuriate viewers, however, the class discussions or even lectures prove to be a far more democratic and allow for much brighter commentary. The young students in these classes already have the light of optimism in their eyes, a future of their own devising still possible, while the adults have committed themselves to a battle and can’t help being weighed down by however much they’re losing the fight for universal education. Still At Berkeley doesn’t overly rely on that dissonance of age, instead focusing on the diversity within the student body itself. An early discussion on the school’s budget cuts turns into a heated argument on how middle class interest in poverty isn’t seen as a serious issue as much as it’s seen as a popularized fad. To sum up the message of the scene with a quote from Emma Watson’s Bling Ring character, “I want to lead a large charity organization. I want to lead a country for all I know.”
Several moments of At Berkeley hint at the ironic nature of its set-up. It’s set within a upscale institution, so all these discussions on poverty and subtle forms of cultural ambivalence – a scene where students discuss stereotyping of colored students in classes darts a glaring eye at every shy white viewer – are framed within a safely privileged environment. Many of these students could very well struggle through life, but they still have an opportunity that promises them a reasonably stable future just by being there. Those from dirt poor families aren’t so lucky, and all their intense discussions cannot cure a sense of instilled apathy. This is driven home in one of the film’s final thriving set-pieces, a thriving student protest against the school’s recent financial issues, a matter they ignorantly believe the school’s administrative board can instantly fix without realizing that for that necessary to happen, they need to go through many extensive, boring and repetitive faculty meetings. The process of change doesn’t happen with a single, reckless revolt. It’s the culmination of several long discussions.
Accompanying that ignorance is the thoughtlessness to the students they’re inconveniencing by loudly occupying the campus library. For as many students act self-righteously for the cause, they’re just a small percentage of student population, the majority of which are too busy trying not to sabotage their own educations. At Berkeley starts to seem like an ensemble defense of individuality, but it teeters constantly on the edge of artificiality. The worry that students nowadays are being turned into robots is given an amusingly literal parallel in a scene where a programmer struggles to get a robot to successfully fold a towel. Such as it is At Berkeley, so it is at nearly every university. Try as people might to climb “up the ladder to the roof”, as the local acapella group performs early on, there will inevitably be those who watch on with dead eyes, ignorant to the fact that they have a considerable stake in the matter.
Bottom Line: At 4 hours long, At Berkeley is an extensive depiction of college, but a universally resonant and intricately constructed one.