Two years ago I saw Frederick Wiseman’s previous documentary Crazy Horse in which he took viewers inside Paris’ nude dance revue for just over two hours. Despite the potentially titillating subject matter I found myself bored out of my mind and running for the exit when they threatened us with a Q&A with Wiseman. This year I found myself back in the grip of the much-lauded documentarian as I sat down to watch his latest documentary about Berkeley university that comes in at an astonishing 244 minutes in length. If two hours of strippers won’t entertain me what chance does four hours of university lectures have?
Robert Wiseman does not indulge in the usual tropes of documentary film-making as he avoids any interviews with his subjects talking to camera, there are no title cards or graphics to guide you through the story, and we don’t even get so much as the date or a subject’s name onscreen to help us know who is speaking and when. Wiseman is a documentarian who simply sets his camera off rolling and relies on his subject to be interesting enough for us to watch. Luckily Wiseman has chosen a bustling, vibrant, and diverse university that over the course of twelve weeks offers up a large bounty of interesting discussions, amusing moments, and probably much more than four hours of engrossing footage.
The film is a mixture of prolonged visitations to a university class where we sit and listen to a faculty member lecture to, or discuss with, their students and time spent in the endless staff and faculty meetings in which budgets are discussed as the university struggles with reduced state funding and the demands of staff and students alike. The financial strain of the recent recession permeates throughout the film as time and time again we see people discuss in various contexts the difficulties they are having to either pay tuition fees or hire enough staff to keep the lawns well-trimmed.
The film is not entirely made up of extended footage of people’s conversations and classes as throughout are sprinkled small moments on campus; a student struggles to program a robot to pick up a towel, a member of staff chases a rogue leaf through the campus with their leaf blower, and a glee club perform an energetic song about Facebook. At Berkeley has such scope across its four hours that by the end you feel you know Berkeley intimately as if you have spent twelve weeks wandering its campus walking from door to door and dipping into a variety of lectures, meetings, and just getting lost in the surrounding area.
Towards the end of the film it briefly finds an event to focus on and almost allows itself to take on a narrative as students stage a protest and occupy one of the libraries. We are allowed to see not just the protest itself but inside the faculty office as they try to deal with the situation and are baffled by the conflicting list of demands. Wiseman doesn’t let us off that easily though as we are soon enough back in an astrophysics class being baffled by talk of red shift and supernova spectroscopy.
Whether Wiseman needed four hours to make At Berkeley is debatable; without a single narrative thread and hundreds of hours of footage this film could conceivable have been any length between ninety minutes up to a full day. At four hours long the film does not overstay its welcome but manages to completely envelop the viewer’s mind. Once inside the documentary I had no way of telling how many minutes had passed and found myself completely adrift in time with no anchor to tether me. I was completely immersed and loved the experience.
At Berkeley is an enjoyable endurance and has finally allowed me to see what a fine film-maker Wiseman is.
At Berkeley screens at the festival on the 14th October.