“Making these films is a sport,” says veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who at 83 years old remains at the top of his game. “You have to be on your feet, running around, carrying equipment, for 16 to 17 hours a day. It’s never easy.”
Since the 1960s, Wiseman, a graduate of Yale Law School, has been tenaciously chronicling American institutions with a subtle yet persuasive rhetorical style, avoiding voiceover narration or expository subtitles in favor of a more thoughtful exploratory method of argument. For his 39th feature-length documentary, At Berkeley (opening in New York this week), it took 14 months of editing to nail his four-hour case about the plight of public education.
Even by Wiseman’s standards — he’s made films on such behemoths as Central Park and Madison Square Garden — At Berkeley was a particularly mammoth undertaking. For over 12 weeks, he shot 250 hours of footage at the venerable University of California school in an attempt to capture its varying moods, constituencies, and conflicts — no mean feat considering there are some 35,000 students, 3,500 faculty members, and administrative staff in the thousands. (Although, we learn, due to budget cuts, only a single lawnmower.) “It’s quite a large community,” says Wiseman. “And since I didn’t start the film with any particular thesis in mind, the question was how to unite various fragments into something that has a dramatic structure.”
Wiseman has created most of his documentaries in this manner. And while the films’ titles may sound banal — High School, Hospital, Zoo — Wiseman uses these distinct social organizations to offer greater insights into society and human nature as a whole. As he says, “Every film has to proceed on a literal and abstract level, and only if I think it works on both of those levels does a film work.”
At Berkeley, for example, gives viewers a glimpse into administrative budgetary meetings, choral and string-quartet performances, and seminars on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and the nature of time. But, above all, Wiseman’s latest is an urgent reflection of America’s economic crisis and the increasingly dire state of public funding of education in this country.
Wiseman is loath to make grand pronouncements — “I’m bad on cultural generalizations,” he says — but the film’s first lengthy sequence features an instructive quote from a white-haired authority figure, the school’s then-chancellor, Robert J. Birgeneau: “As less and less of our funds come from state government . . . how do we guarantee our public character? Because we must not compromise on that,” he says. “The country has many great private universities — Stanford, Harvard, et cetera — and it doesn’t need another one. It needs great public universities. And how are we going to do that in an environment where the state is continually disinvesting?” (According to Wiseman, state funding has dropped even lower since filming, down this year from 16 percent to just 9 percent.)
After eight months of editing individual scenes, Wiseman began assembling the movie and quickly realized that the chancellor’s statement had to come at the opening. “Because it defined so much of my experience while I was there,” recalls Wiseman, “I knew that I wanted to announce the theme of the financial crisis early.”
In addition to the nation’s economic troubles — which are also reflected in a scene right out of Occupy Wall Street, in which students stage a sit-in at the University library to protest tuition hikes — Wiseman saw other real-world analogues during his time at the school.
“Berkeley is really the face of modern America,” he says, “in that the country has become ethnically and racially diverse, and those ethnic and racial groups are achieving power, and they have to be paid attention to.”
Indeed, two of the most dramatic sequences in the film involve people of color speaking truth to power. Distilled from multiple hours of real-time discussions, these scenes — both involving black female students — reveal a complicated and thorny set of interactions, involving issues of race, class, and status. “I’m very much against the simplification of complex social issues,” Wiseman notes.
For all of his interest in “how our democracy functions,” as he defines it, Wiseman insists his movies are not meant to influence that democracy. “I don’t think there’s any direct consequence between film and social change,” he says. “That’s both a naïve and narcissistic point of view, because people have access to all kinds of information — movies, books, newspapers — so I don’t think any one thing is important.”
Rather, Wiseman sees himself not unlike some of the public educators he recently followed at Berkeley, “someone who wants to explore contemporary American life and help myself and others understand it better.”