NYFF51 Spotlight: Wiseman’s “At Berkeley” Looks at Free Speech Under Financial Crisis

Posted by Brian Brooks on 9.16.2013


Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley.

The fallout from the financial crisis, the challenges facing public education, and the idealism of youth are just some areas covered in Frederick Wiseman's latest epic At Berkeleywhich will screen in the Official Selection of the 51st New York Film Festival. Shot in a style that recalls vérité (a term often associated with Wiseman's long history of filmmaking though he is not a fan of the word), the 83 year old filmmaker takes his signature observational approach to the University of California, Berkeley.

The four-hour feature is stitched together from well over 200 hours of footage Wiseman accumulated over 12 weeks, told through multiple points of view, including that of administrators facing a crisis of diminishing state resources while attempting to secure financial footing for the university, which is consistently ranked as one of the top in the world, and maintaining its historical diversity.

"Public education is facing a significant challenge," said Wiseman via Skype at the Walter Reade Theatre following a pre-festival screening on Monday. "Forces on the right have called for cuts to the Humanities in favor of areas that only emphasize technical training. But it is the Humanities that teaches and reinforces our democratic institutions."

Wiseman, who will also discuss his career and approach to filmmaking in an HBO Directors Dialogue at NYFF51, said he had nearly complete access to the university. He details on camera an array of formal and impromptu events including the administration's internal discussions of a student sit-in at the school's main library, and going inside the building where dozens of campus activists gave speeches outlining their demands. At Berkeley also goes inside the classroom, around the campus showing students lazing in the California sun, and inside faculty meetings.

"The only thing I didn't really have access to was discussions related to tenure, but otherwise they pretty much gave me free reign," said Wiseman.


Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley

The filmmaker added that, unlike some of his previous films, this feature does not spotlight an obvious antagonist beyond the general disintegration of support for public higher education.

"I knew that Berkeley had great faculty and students," he explained. "I was impressed by the administrators who are dedicated to preserving [the university's] standards. Some people think a documentary has to expose something malicious or evil—which is sometimes appropriate—but I also think a documentary should show people who are dedicated to what they believe in."

Consistent with his past work, Wiseman said he viewed footage from the many hours of shooting at the campus and developed its structure while editing: "I don't discover the point of view of the film until I'm editing and I discover its major themes when I work on the film's structure.

Campus life and classroom discussions from a cross-section of disciplines take shape in the feature, all maintaining Wiseman's direct approach to filmmaking. From individual students breaking down under the pressure of the financial fallout all the way up to administrators discussing international recruitment to help balance the books, the film offers a curated glimpse inside of one of the most envied public institutions in the world.

"I wasn't doing a movie solely on the financial crisis and I don't interview anyone. Unless I found people talking about it, I didn't include it," said Wiseman. "And that style choice is either a strength or a hinderance, depending on your point of view."


Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley.

At Berkeley
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Section: Official Selection
Screens: September 28 at 3:30pm

NYFF Official Description:

From 1967 to the present, Frederick Wiseman has built one of the most formidable bodies of work in cinema. His masterfully constructed documentaries (Wiseman has a sense of structure and of character to rival that of any fiction filmmaker) have examined the inner workings of institutions, undertakings and ways of life great (Welfare) and small (Boxing Gym), joyous (La Danse) and harsh (Near Death). In his new film, he looks at the University of California, Berkeley, as always from multiple angles – the administrators as they try reconcile the school’s storied past with its fiscally grim present, the students as they try to reconcile their ideals with the realities of their world, the maintenance staff, the local shops and restaurants – in order to arrive at a portrait that is rich in detail and epic in scope. Wiseman, now a very youthful 83, is one of our most vigorous filmmakers. He is also one of our greatest.

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