Out Now – 12th September 2014

At Berkley

In which I encourage you to see a four-hour documentary about an American University…

The Boxtrolls
Boxtrolls are cave-dwelling trash collectors, otherwise known as wombles. Under threat from an evil exterminator the trolls a rescued by a young orphan boy they raised in a manner that in no way constitutes kidnap. Stop-motion animation and rave reviews mean this might not be a bad choice.

A Most Wanted Man
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last lead role, we’re a while away from his last on-screen appearance ever, is as a German spy in this John le Carré thriller. Truly the end of an era for fine character-led performances from one of modern cinema’s greats.

Pride
When you first see promotional material for Pride it is too easy to dismiss it as just another Billy Elliot or Full Monty. Then you see some full scenes from the film and read reviews and realise that this might actually be a British comedy gem about the marginalised fighting back. Then you remember that this is precisely what Billy Elliot or Full Monty were and feel silly for being so judgemental. I will be seeing this.

At Berkeley
Frederick Wiseman presents a four-hour documentary set at University of California at Berkeley. Wiseman’s style is simply to film for hours/days/weeks on end and then carve out a film from the footage. There is no voiceover or interviews and the result is mesmerising. I saw this at the London Film Festival last year and it was sincerely worth four hours of my time.

Finding Fanny
No obvious jokes please! This is an Indian romantic comedy drama about a man hitting the road to find his first love. This is about romance, not the smut going on in your mind.

Ballet Boys
Speaking of Billy Elliot… Documentary about boys who do ballet.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
Documentary exploring those who try to live a spiritual lifestyle in the modern world. “It is a record of experience that proposes belief in transcendence as a viable outcome of living in the now.” Good…

One Night in Istanbul
“A screen adaptation of the hit play about the exploits of a group of Liverpool Football fans at the European Cup final in Istanbul.” Oooh a play! Oh, football.

A Dangerous Game
Follow-up to 2011’s brilliant documentary You’ve Been Trumped. Sadly this latest attack on the beautifully coiffed Donald Trump is said to be less worthy of a cinema trip.

In Order of Disappearance
A sort of Scandinavian Tarantino film starring Stellan Skarsgård about revenge, gang warfare, and the like.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn
Iranian drama with a lie for a title.

At Berkeley – LFF Film Review

At Berkley

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.

BFI London Film Festival 2013