During one heated discussion in Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley (2013), a lecturer insists that a ‘revolution in ideas’ is the best strategy for eradicating the inequality prevalent in contemporary society. Thankfully, ideas are bountiful in this immersive voyage through the corridors and classrooms of the America’s most prestigious state-funded college, the University of California, Berkeley. The balance between knowledge and pleasure has long been the defining equation of how documentaries structurally and stylistically differ from fictional filmmaking, yet in Wiseman’s doc about the importance of accessible education during an enduring era of economic uncertainty, knowledge and pleasure are indistinguishable.
Renowned for quietly observing institutions and the way the lives of those within them react to an ever-changing society, Wiseman explores Berkeley’s social mission and obligation to the state are currently being tested by mounting budget cuts. Clocking in at just over four hours, At Berkeley justifies its length by never prioritising any particular individual, faculty or socio-group, instead allowing everyone the same respectful deliberation. Wiseman simply provides us with the knowledge we require and allows us the space to contemplate. This is achieved through his trademark approach; with scenes of lectures, board meetings and campus life captured through a series of long, uninterrupted takes. There are no talking head interviews, voice’s or title cards to direct the audience – instead we’re left to soak up the atmosphere of learning.
While At Berkeley presents us with un-manipulated events, it would be naive to assume that Wiseman’s editing isn’t highly calculating, weaving together a richly layered and incredibly dense state of the nation address that conforms to his personal politics. Wiseman’s agenda gradually becomes clear as the film builds towards a large- scale student protest against a proposed hike in tuition fees. A languid build up discussing budget cuts and the squeeze on student’s pockets shifts to honest and passionate debates about class, social mobility and the importance of accessible education. Some could argue that Wiseman’s focus is too narrow, ignoring the voices of the university’s administration and grounds keeping staff, yet their silent presence only validates the film’s argument for reducing inequality and increasing investment in public education. Wiseman’s focus on policy and procedure over subjective experiences underlines the need to move away from progressive individualism and focus on the benefits of free and equal education.
Wiseman aims to highlight the trickle-down effect of these proposed changes in tuition charges. However, one insightful lecturer succinctly makes Wiseman’s point when she states that a recently graduate lawyer with a high level of student debt is almost certainly less likely to accept a low-paying public sector job then better paid work within the private sector. Putting the film’s egalitarian politics aside, At Berkeley succeeds principally in creating an insatiable hungry for knowledge within the audience, lighting a fire that for many will have lain dormant for years. An uninhibited paean to the classroom and a rousing endorsement of the wider availability of higher learning, Wiseman’s doc is a pedagogic experience to be thankful for.