Caption goes here. © 2013 Berkeley Film, Inc.  Photo Courtesy of Zipporah Films
Students concentrating on their laptops in a still from At Berkeley. © 2013 Berkeley Film, Inc. Photo Courtesy of Zipporah Films

Frederick Wiseman, interviewed by Berkeleyside this week, has been steadily making documentaries about institutions since his 1967 Titicut Follies took viewers inside a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane. His subjects have ranged from a high school to basic training to meatpacking plants to ballet in Paris. In the fall of 2010, Wiseman and two collaborators — a cameraman and an assistant — arrived on the UC Berkeley campus to subject the university to the same treatment.

Wiseman had written to then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to see if the university was receptive to the project. After lunch with Birgeneau and Provost George Breslauer, Wiseman received the go-ahead for the project. The only thing he wasn’t allowed to film was tenure discussions. Wiseman, in turn, said the university could have 48 hours after he filmed anything to request it not be included. In the event, virtually nothing was affected, according to Wiseman.

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. Photo: Lance Knobel
Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. Photo: Lance Knobel

At Berkeley, Wiseman’s 40th feature, runs over four hours, with his characteristically lengthy sequences moving from a senior administration retreat on the university budget crisis, to a half-dozen classes, to student discussions, to the Oct. 7, 2010 protest on funding cuts. In between the larger segments, there are glimpses of students lounging on the grass, throwing frisbees, lawnmowing (at the time budget cuts had left the campus with only a single lawnmower), and loving footage of concrete being spread and drying during construction of the high-performance athletic center.

Wiseman, 83, certainly isn’t coasting into retirement. He’s nearly done editing his next film which looks at London’s National Gallery, and he’s wondering what project should be next. He plainly relishes his immersions in different institutions. “For me, it’s like a course in adult education, where I’m the alleged adult,” he said.

At Berkeley was shown in an invitation-only screening at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive on Tuesday night, and opens at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Dec. 6.

Berkeleyside sat down with Wiseman on Tuesday to talk about the movie.

The struggle to remain a public university at a time when public support is dwindling is at the center of the movie. You’ve referred to this as a crisis in other interviews. What’s the key issue for you? 

I don’t present myself as an expert on the financial crisis at the University of California or Berkeley. But it does seem obvious that the crisis is grave when (state) funding has been cut from 50% to 16% when the movie was made, to 9% now.

In a sense you see a great public university which is becoming a private university because of the lack of public support.

Then-chancellor Robert Birgeneau in At Berkeley. © 2013 Berkeley Film, Inc.  Photo Courtesy of Zipporah Films
Then-chancellor Robert Birgeneau in At Berkeley. © 2013 Berkeley Film, Inc. Photo Courtesy of Zipporah Films

Yet many people in the movie make clear that the public role remains central for them. 

The administration and faculty of the university certainly haven’t lost the principle that it is, and should remain, a public university. The fact is that even through the economic crisis they found a way to not only maintain the number of scholarship students, but to increase the number of scholarship students.

The idea that one-third of tuition that comes from out-of-state students or foreign students gets applied to scholarships means that the number of scholarships increased. That’s very clever.

Also, they’re maintaining the idea of the university as a place where low-income students, students who are the first in their family to go to college can jump into the middle class as a result of the education and the opportunities the education can provide.

What might these financial pressures on public higher education mean?

It’s not so much a theme of the movie, but I followed a little bit what happened at the University of Virginia last year. The whole notion of applying a cost-benefit analysis to the courses offered at a university, so that if only six people are taking Renaissance history, bye bye Renaissance history. That does not strike me as an idea that is consistent with what a university should be.

Sometimes behind that cost-benefit approach is a political agenda to dumb down the education of the students, so that students aren’t educated in democratic traditions or taught to think critically, that can serve the political purposes of the far right.

Caption goes here. © 2013 Berkeley Film, Inc.  Photo Courtesy of Zipporah Films
Students listening to a lecture in At Berkeley. © 2013 Berkeley Film, Inc. Photo Courtesy of Zipporah Films

There are a number of moments in ‘At Berkeley’ when people say quite startling things, that you wouldn’t expect to hear in a public setting. How do you prevent the camera from being intrusive and distorting the genuineness of what’s said? 

I don’t know the real answer to the question. The fact that a film is being made rarely bothers anyone. A quarter of a half of a percent, if that. It’s very rare that somebody doesn’t agree to be photographed.

There are a variety of possible explanations. One explanation is indifference. Another explanation is that people are so involved in what they’re doing and they don’t care the camera is there. Another explanation is narcissism or vanity. I don’t know that there is an explanation. My experience is you can get very intimate discussions that are the same even if the camera has not been there.

There are no names or titles given anywhere in the movie. Perhaps people can figure out who Robert Birgeneau or Robert Reich are, but most people won’t know. Why do you do that?

The people that know the participants don’t need to have them identified. People that don’t know, the name isn’t going to mean anything, unless they look them up on Google or something. I hope the sequences are edited in such a way so that it’s clear who the persons of authority in a sequence are, and that’s important. A minor reason, but a reason that influences me, is that it kills the picture and I don’t like that.

The issue here is what are they saying and what’s the significance of it.

What did you learn from 12 weeks on campus and a year editing?

This isn’t meant to be a flippant answer, but it’s what you see in the film. It’s how impressed I was at the way the university was run and at the enormous effort the administration made, led by the chancellor and the provost, to maintain the standards and integrity of the university.

That’s very impressive. Some people think the role of documentary film makers is to always expose some evil or to show some horrible thing happening. And certainly documentary film can do that and should do that. But it’s equally important to show people of intelligence, sensitivity and goodwill doing a good job. Why isn’t that a good subject, too? It’s less fashionable, but it’s just as important.

I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. But there are people who think it’s not a “Wiseman film” unless it shows poor people being exploited by the state. Which shows a complete misunderstanding of what I’m doing.

I certainly hope that people come away with the idea that this is a great university and the idea of cutting it down by cutting the budget is a great loss not just for the university but for the community and for the country.

At Berkeley opens on Friday, Dec. 6 at the Elmwood Theater, 2966 College Ave. There will be a Q&A with Wiseman via Skype after the 7:15 p.m. show on Friday. It’s also showing from Friday at the Roxie in San Francisco. 

Frederick Wiseman goes behind the scenes at Crazy Horse (02.29.12)
Big Screen Berkeley: Boxing Gym (12.21.10)
Documentary maker Frederick Wiseman is on campus (09.15.10)

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...