Documentary ‘At Berkeley’ takes an uneven look at a campus in crisis

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman stands in front of California Hall in 2010 during filming of "At Berkeley." The documentary will premiere on campus this week and opens in theaters on Friday.
Shannon Hamilton/File
Documentarian Frederick Wiseman stands in front of California Hall in 2010 during filming of "At Berkeley." The documentary will premiere on campus this week and opens in theaters on Friday.

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For a little more than four hours, director Frederick Wiseman’s camera floats through UC Berkeley’s campus, taking viewers into the magical and mundane corners of the university during the fall of 2010.

Students lounge on a knoll covered in autumn leaves. Researchers work diligently on a pair of robotic legs that allow a disabled man to walk. Administrators debate the university budget ad nauseam. Robert Reich cracks a few jokes. A discussion section debates race and income inequality. A nameless student stands in for a generation of millennials, crying as she describes her growing debt. A gardener cuts the grass outside California Hall.

Not a lot is explained or put in context in “At Berkeley.” None of the people on screen are ever identified by name.

The journey is at times fascinating, even touching, but more often than not, it is a frustrating, if not boring, look at life at UC Berkeley. At one point, Wiseman cuts from former chancellor Robert Birgeneau delivering a speech to faculty members to a montage of concrete drying. It is a genuine tossup as to which is more interesting.

When the documentary premieres on campus this week, it will face its harshest audience: the students, staff and faculty of the university. Many, I imagine, will be stunned by what the film leaves out. There are few moments of student life. No look at the co-ops, the residence halls, meetings of the Berkeley College Republicans or the Black Student Union.

The most we get is a series of cursory scenes of a football game and a recruiting event for the Greek system. Both are shot from afar without words.

This is by design. “At Berkeley” is a part of 83-year-old Wiseman’s decades-long study of how power functions in America. Since his groundbreaking 1967 debut, “Titicut Follies,” examined life in a mental hospital in Massachusetts, Wiseman has made more than 40 documentaries, with a focus mainly on public institutions. (A sample filmography: “High School,” “Basic Training,” “Juvenile Court,” “Public Housing,” “State Legislature,” etc.)

In this context, the themes of “At Berkeley” gain clarity. This is, more than anything, a film about the contradiction of a great public institution such as UC Berkeley; a place that is both egalitarian in principle and elite by design. This is clear from the get-go when Birgeneau explains that the state of California contributed just 16 percent of UC Berkeley’s budget. This is a university increasingly public in name only, striving to maintain what administrators call its “public character.”

Wiseman set out to make a film about how a university as large as UC Berkeley is administered. The result is, not surprisingly, that “At Berkeley” is told mainly from the administration’s perspective — which, as UC Berkeley students are known to say, is problematic.

The scenes of Birgeneau and his cabinet discussing the budget, the controversial Operational Excellence cost-saving initiative and other matters are fascinating in their level of banality. Between the endless PowerPoints, jargon and doublespeak, it is amazing that UC Berkeley functions at all.

Thankfully, there is some comedy in these scenes. Birgeneau sports a priceless face as he stares off into space, probably wondering when a lower-level administrator will stop droning on about how reluctant his staffers are to change.

Although these scenes successfully convey how difficult it is to run a campus as big as UC Berkeley during a fiscal crisis, something is lost in Wiseman’s approach.

For instance, we are offered nearly 15 minutes of campus and UCPD officials discussing tactics for managing a looming student protest over tuition hikes. There are no corresponding scenes explaining exactly what the students’ grievances are, only a few brief speeches during the protest that dissolve into marching and shouting.

We do, however, get a long scene in which Birgeneau demeans the demonstration, describing the protesters’ demands as “crazy” before fondly recalling his own radical days in the ’60s — you know, when students stood up for legitimate social causes.

In all fairness, Wiseman shot more than 250 hours of footage, and it is hard to expect that everything will make the final cut — but he does himself a disservice by omitting the stories of student activists and their struggles. This film was, after all, filmed in 2010 in the middle of a multiyear period of renewed student activism that — between the occupation of Wheeler Hall in 2009 and the Occupy movement in 2011 — caught the world’s attention.

As anyone who was on campus at the time will say, the events Wiseman ignores were not an insignificant part of campus life (full disclosure: I covered higher education for The Daily Californian when “At Berkeley” was filmed, and I run past the camera at one point).

The rub here is that Wiseman is famous for eschewing “objectivity” in his documentaries, opting instead to be “fair” to the experience he had shooting the film. During a phone interview from his editing studio in Paris, Wiseman referred to the film as a “report” of what he saw during the shoot.

“ ‘Fair’ means means fair to my understanding of what was happening in the sequences I chose to use and edit,” he said.

Unlike his other films, which were named after the type of institution they depict, Wiseman added “at” to the title to convey that the documentary shows what he saw while at UC Berkeley.

“I didn’t want to, in any way, suggest that I got it all,” he said. “You never get it all — I didn’t want to even give a hint of a suggestion that the film was comprehensive.”

Wiseman is fair to the experience he had. But it is too bad that his experience followed the administration’s narrative at the expense of other stories.

As the activist blog Reclaim UC noted in its thorough review of the film, “it will take both a different director and a different technique to tell these stories.”

The film has more success when Wiseman focuses on classrooms, labs and the lives of average students at UC Berkeley. It’s on this smaller scale that Wiseman fulfills the promise of his earlier films, creating drama from the seemingly mundane.

We get a fascinating glimpse into a classroom of new graduate students going through a kind of boot camp as they prepare to teach undergraduates for the first time.

Students share insightful perspectives about the Great Recession during a discussion led by professor Ananya Roy. At one point, the only black student in the class points out a white student’s apparent naivete in having just realized that, yes, inequality still exists in America.

Although a viewer who hasn’t gone to UC Berkeley might assume most discussion sections are taught by celebrity professors such as Reich or Roy, these moments still capture the stimulating thought UC Berkeley brews in its classrooms.

The glimpses of campus research are presented in baffling glory. Only those with doctorates in astrophysics will understand a scene with Saul Perlmutter, who won the Nobel Prize in physics a year after filming. It is during these moments that the viewer can’t help but feel a kind of wonder at the things happening in the weird corners of campus.

The film’s most powerful moments come toward the end, when a group of student veterans huddle together in Barrows Hall to offer one another support as they make the tough transition to academic life.

“You are not like a freak or an imposter; you are supposed to be here,” one student tells the group. “(UC Berkeley) will kick your ass and make you feel like nothing — then they build you back up again. Once you realize your passion, this place is so easy.”

There aren’t enough truly human moments like that one in the film.

It seems as if Wiseman intends this film to be a time capsule of sorts for life at UC Berkeley at this particular moment. He all but states this intention by including a student performing the famous monologue from Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” in which the narrator states his hopes that the play itself will serve as a record for those in the future.

Time will tell what role “At Berkeley” occupies in the campus’s popular memory. With its long running time and lack of a clear narrative, it isn’t as watchable as documentaries such as Mark Kitchell’s classic “Berkeley in the Sixties.”  However flawed, the film offers a uniquely detailed look at a public university in the midst of a historic crisis. Years from now, perhaps when the state provides just 1 percent of UC Berkeley’s budget, students should be thankful Birgeneau gave Wiseman the OK to come and craft this time capsule.

“At Berkeley” will screen Tuesday, Dec. 3, from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. at BAM/PFA and 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. in the Chevron Auditorium at International House. The film will open this Friday, Dec. 6 at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley and at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Contact Javier Panzar at [email protected].

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