Documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who’s been making films for more than 50 years, tells stories by watching. He and his camera arrive at an institution — a ballet company (“La Danse”), a city park (“Central Park”), a gym (“Boxing Gym”) — and quietly observe, for however long it takes.
The film is then assembled through a series of moments, none created by the filmmaker (i.e., no talking-head interviews, no added music, no title cards, no questions asked). It’s an effective, organic way to capture the sense of a place, and it, refreshingly, requires resources of patience — from both the filmmaker and the audience.
“At Berkeley,” filmed at the University of California, Berkeley during the fall 2010 semester, unfolds over a full four hours, and I won’t pretend that every minute of it is mesmerizing. (In one scene, we literally watch concrete dry.)
But anyone who cares about documentary filmmaking, or about the state of public higher education, will find themselves quietly dazzled by the picture Wiseman paints here, in small dabs. A university is a world, and we see it from numerous views: administrators, in meetings discussing budgets; students in class, both fascinated and slumped in boredom; researchers in their labs; gardeners blowing away leaves; a tightrope walker on a green campus field; musical and theatrical performances; ROTC workouts; the prancing members of a marching band; student teachers learning how to teach; financial officers talking to students about loans (“your education will never depreciate”); and many, many more moments.
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In each, you begin to sense all of the others, happening simultaneously; a vibrant, buzzing universe.
Fall 2010 was an eventful time at Berkeley. Students organized a protest and sit-in (“Beware of simple solutions to complex problems,” warns one, before saying that education should be free), while administrators and staff faced crippling budget cuts from the state.
But “At Berkeley” is at its most moving in its smaller moments — such as a young woman in a literature class, listening with interest, who suddenly makes a note; you see on her face a flash of connection with the Donne poem the professor reads.
The film is summed up in a moment from a campus production of “Our Town,” with a stage manager in jeans and T-shirt talking about a time capsule. “So, people a thousand years from now,” he says, “this is the way we were.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org