Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley Highlights the Need for Great Public Universities


The latest sprawling sociological documentary from 83-year-old national treasure Frederick Wiseman, At Berkeley spends four hours detailing the ins and outs of life at the University of California, Berkeley, in fall 2010 — a tumultuous period thanks to a decrease in state investment in the university.

Wiseman’s generally static camera spends prolonged periods of time in the classroom, at student gatherings, and in the halls of educational power, training a multifaceted gaze on opinions regarding an economic shift affecting faculty salaries, subsidized programs, student tuition, and the university’s fundamental “public” character.

Despite proving to be the doc’s organizing conceit, this transition doesn’t limit Wiseman’s purview, as the director also spends considerable time simply listening in on lectures and discussions on topics ranging from literature and poetry to dark matter, physics, engineering, and civic responsibility.

This conversational material is interspersed with everyday snapshots of janitors sweeping floors, marching bands running onto football fields, and people working on laptops in hallways, all of which further express an all-encompassing sense of the Berkeley campus’s day-to-day.

Meanwhile, footage of road-paving construction subtly mirrors Wiseman’s depiction of the way in which the university constantly reinvents and renews itself — logistically, politically, intellectually — through constant, engaged dialogue and debate.