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At Berkeley: Venice Review

At Berkeley'

The Bottom Line

A sometimes fascinating, sometimes not, four-hour visit to the Berkeley campus offers insights into what the great, sprawling public university is today.

Venue

Venice Film Festival (out of competition)

Director/Screenwriter

Frederick Wiseman

America's top public university falls under the microscope of veteran documaker Frederick Wiseman.

It’s surprising how much remains to be said about the University of California, Berkeley, after four hours of Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley, his classy-as-ever 38th documentary about America’s leading public institution of higher learning. At times fascinating, at times not, its in-depth look at the administration, campus, students and faculty offers an insider's view into the way American academia functions, which in itself should interest uptown audiences as well as foreigners curious about a major American institution. Given the subject, however, the public will inevitably be more limited than for the director’s visually exciting films about the Paris Opera Ballet (2009) and the dancers at Crazy Horse (2011). Meanwhile, a host of eager fall festivals await it, including Venice, Toronto, New York and Sydney.

Following his time-honed philosophy of non-intervention, Wiseman edits footage gathered over four months of shooting on campus without a word of narration or an obviously imposed POV. The clearly focused, fixed-camera images do the rest. Yet in the case of Berkeley, the name itself conjures up so much that one would have liked some historical perspective to compare present with past. Most American viewers will be aware that the university was a hotbed for left-wing activism in the 1960s at the height of the hippie movement and the protests against the Vietnam war, not to mention the famous battle over People's Park when governor Ronald Reagan sent the National Guard to campus for a month. None of that background appears in the film.

What we do see is a highly articulate black woman talking about feeling excluded from study groups by white students. Later, in another scene, a group of veterans talk about their qualms about following their military experience with becoming Berkeley students.

Times have changed, but this film is not about that change. Yet perhaps Wiseman makes this point in chronicling a library sit-in staged by a sizable number of angry (but not enraged) students, who present a list of demands that the administration ably fends off. The latter is perfectly prepared to defend occupancy of campus buildings with a plan involving campus and local police forces. But the stand-off isn’t necessary: The demonstrators leave the building on time, all by themselves.

Much of the film is a sober behind-the-scenes record of how a modern university administration faces the challenge of diminishing public funding (now down to a miserly 18 percent). Despite people saying so on camera again and again, there is no real sense that Berkeley, so well-run and full of smart teachers and students, is all that unique. Like other places that cost a lot, it points students in profitable career directions, champions excellence and vies with its competitors for outstanding faculty, actively recruits new students in Asia, and is beefing up its research program, which is going strong and can offer a way out of the funding crisis.

The most amusing parts of the film are unquestionably visits to the classrooms and samples of teaching, which range from reading John Donne’s sexy poems to a totally abstract lesson in astronomy where the joke is it’s all incomprehensible. Behind-the-scenes administrative meetings take up a little more screen time than they’re worth.

Venue:  Venice Film Festival (out of competition), Sept. 2, 2013

Production companies:  Zipporah Films, Berkeley Films Inc., Independent Television Service ITVS

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Screenwriter: Frederick Wiseman

Producer: Frederick Wiseman  

Executive producer: Sally Jo Fifer  

Director of photography: John Daley

Editor: Frederick Wiseman

Sales: Zipporah Films, Doc&Film International

No rating,  244 minutes.