Directed by Frederick Wiseman
At the venerable age of 83, the legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman has quietly stormed the citadels of academia with his leisurely piece At Berkeley, a peek behind the gently manicured lawns of one of the most prestigious educational centres in the world. Over a lilting 4-hour lecture, Wiseman’s cameras penetrate the professional lives of the institution’s scholars and students, from the chancellor to its freshmen, capturing a fascinating fresco of an ivory tower trapped in amber, following the continual reverberations of the 2008 financial earthquake. Senior management are grappling with severely disintegrated budgets and struggle to retain their most dazzling and groundbreaking staff, who could be poached from other institutions, potentially threatening Berkeley’s reputation as one of the most elite institutions in academia. Meanwhile, students on scholarships are feeling the financial pressure, juggling their crushing workloads and mediocre fiscal firepower in the background of growing economic inequality and a deteriorating job market throughout the country, racking up impossible levels of debt with all the attendant stress and anxiety, but without the safety net of a guaranteed job or fiscally secure career upon graduation.
In recent years, the documentary form has been increasingly usurped by peacocking figures behind the camera, such as Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, destabilizing the illusion of non-fiction neutrality. These men utilize their media personas to market their ideological tracts and political viewpoints. In the context of such trends within the genre, it’s almost quaint to digest a quietly modulated non-fiction piece, a simple report on events and interactions that isn’t obviously embellished by media personalities to promote their social and cultural credos, whether you are sympathetic to their positions or not.
Voice-over, title cards, contextual crawls and animated illustrations are all dismissed in favour of the traditional documentary form, as discreet cameras work as a silent witness to acknowledge the effect of budget cuts reverberating throughout every pore of this institution in jeopardy. Some subtle position does emerge from the supposed political balance, however, as Wiseman mixes in footage of the foundations and initial construction phases of a new campus building between glimpses of the R&D labs and seminar melees; thus, it’s hard to not make the connection that here is where new ideas and solutions are formed, as the bedrock of intellectual and social civilization is nurtured in these hallowed halls.
Pushing aside the Schrödinger’s cat theory of cinéma vérité techniques – that the mere act of observing something, no matter how clandestinely and quietly, will cause subtle and unacknowledged changes within it – this is a quietly fascinating and untampered reportage of the lecture theatres, boardrooms, and corridors of a venerable organization in flux, buffeted by social, racial, and sociological forces from within and independent of its origin. In its closing hour, At Berkeley moves into coverage of a burgeoning protest movement chiding the insufferable financial and labor inequalities that appears as a precursor to the more rarefied Occupy eruption – the film was shot during the autumn of 2010. But on a wider level, At Berkeley works as a testament to a brief moment in time, of an organization viewed as a microcosm of a capacious macro-level disruption to the body politic.
— John McEntee