You may not be familiar with the work of Frederick Wiseman, but the Boston-based documentarian has been making films since the 1960s (he’s now eighty-three) and recently won a Special Award from the New York Film Critics’ Circle. Wiseman’s documentaries, though shot verité-style, without voice-over narration, interviews, or non-diagetic music, should not be thought of as objective; on the contrary, they’re cannily edited and frequently excoriating. But many of them are also refreshingly, tantalizingly open-ended. That’s true of his latest, At Berkeley, a four-hour-long panorama of the California public college famous for its radical politics and outspoken student body. Wiseman shows us footage of faculty lectures and committee meetings, student performances and social events, administrators and janitors, undergraduates and groundskeepers. Wiseman’s scope is vast, and, as with his most ambitious films (Near Death; Belfast, Maine), At Berkeley is not driven by argument so much as by a voracious appetite for observational detail. These details are worked into a sprawling tapestry to be laid at our feet, leaving us to draw our own conclusions by tracing its many threads and patterns. A demanding and uncompromising artist, Wiseman continually asks us: what do you see?
One thing that we’re invited to see in At Berkeley is an educational system in crisis. Much of the film, perhaps too much, is spent watching as the administration wrings its hands about funding and a vocal minority of students protest a recent fee hike. In its enigmatic shots of workers constructing the foundation of a new building, animal skeletons on display in glass cages at the library, an engineer fine-tuning the functioning of a humanoid robot, or the faces of those who listen while others talk, the film becomes more thought-provoking. Here, Wiseman hints at deeper, more Foucauldian questions about structures of power and education working at the edges of Berkeley’s sun-dappled quadrangles. Who gets to make knowledge, and who merely upholds its processes? Who has access to speech, input, and resources, and who gets shut out? Have we become a nation divided between those who have the luxury to think and those who are consigned to mechanically do? What role do differences of class and race play in determining such divisions? Is education a business investment or a philosophical pursuit? And, relatedly, should the purpose of college be to produce thinkers, doers, or some combination of the two?
It’s in raising these questions that At Berkeley really comes to life. Sometimes Wiseman addresses them explicitly, as when he observes a diverse group of undergrads talking informally about issues of race and education. In capturing the very messiness of these students’ thoughts as they grope painfully toward insight, such scenes are far richer than those of bureaucratic task-managing with which so much of the film concerns itself. It’s these frank, fumbling, un-self-conscious voices—and the issues of real urgency to which they speak—that Wiseman’s film could use more of.