School gaze

Frederick Wiseman's 'At Berkeley' offers a lengthy, layered portrait of higher education

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Learning, earning: At Berkeley

cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM At Berkeley, the latest documentary from the great Frederick Wiseman, runs 244 minutes — a time commitment intimidating enough to deter any casual viewer. But viewers intrigued by Wiseman's long tradition of filming institutions (a small sampling: 1968's High School; 1973's Juvenile Court; 1985's Racetrack; 2011's Crazy Horse — the latter about a Parisian nude-dancing establishment) with fly-on-the-wall curiosity will want to carve out an afternoon for At Berkeley, as will those interested in 21st century educational issues, California's financial crisis, and the care and maintenance of UC Berkeley's free-spirited image, among other topics.

UC Berkeley students and grads also seem like a built-in audience, which means the film's local screenings are likely to be more populated than they would be elsewhere. Folks who attended while Wiseman was filming (he shot 250 hours of footage over 12 weeks in what appears to be mid- to late-2011) might even catch a glimpse of themselves in crowd scenes and shots of casual moments on campus, which comprise the smallest portion of At Berkeley's divided interests. But the local-color moments do much to flesh out what's not seen in the classroom and administrative-meeting sequences: the fading-hippie glow of Telegraph Avenue; two men with impressive yo-yo skills; a student tussling with his bicycle; a couple napping on a grassy expanse.

We're also shown what goes into the maintenance of that postcard-perfect campus. Berkeley's landscaping starts looking especially impressive when — during a retreat of school bigwigs that Wiseman had apparent free rein to shoot — one administrator points out that budget cuts mean the school employs just one person to mow all of its lawns. "Well, he's doing a good job!" interjects Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor of the school 2004-2013. At the time of filming, UC Berkeley was weathering a series of painful fee increases, staff furloughs and layoffs, and widespread budget cutbacks, with Birgeneau serving as its pragmatic, stern-yet-sympathetic eye of the storm.

Birgeneau, like everyone else in the film (including probably the most recognizable figure: former Clinton cabinet member Robert Reich, now a Berkeley prof), is never identified by name. At first, this feels disorienting; most docs strive to hook the viewer with first-act exposition, but At Berkeley simply plunges in with a woman (a teacher? a student?) regaling (a class? an extracurricular club?) with a myth about Berkeley's origins (spoiler alert: it wasn't founded by gamblers) that leads into a broader rumination on what the school represents. "A sense of imagination, of diversity," she says. "An ideal."

Before long, it's obvious that we don't need to know the back stories of everyone who appears in the film. This portrait of UC Berkeley — as a complex place, not without unrest, but also not without spontaneous a capella performances — emerges with all of its subjects sharing equal footing, their experiences and points of view presented with equal interest. Some of the most compelling scenes take place in classrooms, with remarkably articulate students (though, yes, Wiseman's camera does catch a few looking sleepy and bored) discussing subjects as wildly diverse as poverty in America, advancements in robotics, Thoreau, and racism. There are also fascinating snippets of lectures, including an amusing, anecdote-heavy treatise from Reich on the importance of self-evaluation.

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