NYFF51: Tradition Clashes with a Wild Future in “At Berkeley” and “Manakamana”

Posted by Mark Lukenbill on 10.8.2013


Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley.

The intersection between reverence for tradition and upheaval in a fast changing world are central components of NYFF films At Berkeley and Manakamana. Critics Academy member Mark E. Lukenbill takes a look in his dispatch from the festival for FilmLinc Daily.

"What is it about Berkeley?” This is the first line spoken in Fredrick Wiseman’s behemoth At Berkeley, a four-hour portrait of a public university in a state of nervous flux. State funding is dwindling to a place of near irrelevance, placing massive responsibility on the shoulders of U.C. Berkeley's researchers find alternative resources. Student protests seem vague, unorganized, and in the eyes of the faculty - at least in comparison to their nostalgic recollections of revolutions gone by) a trivial annoyance.

Berkeley is a public university as opposed to its Ivy League counterparts with which it is usually uttered in the same breath. The Bay Area campus, the first in the University of California system, has a storied mystique of a much older school. The word “pre-eminence” is spoken countless times throughout the film, and it’s clear that an almost religious dedication to higher education hangs heavy on the campus. Much like earlier Wiseman films such as High School (his 1968 portrayal of a Philadelphia high school) and Titicut Follies (the 1967 lightning rod expose of a Massachusetts mental hospital), At Berkeley is very much centered on the present . It’ll serve as an all-encompassing portrait of the public education system for years to come, from its frank boardroom discussions about campus security vs. the university's sensitive tradition of public dissent, to the endless debates among Berkeley's diverse student body over how the aftermath of the recession should affect the cost of education.

Reverence for its history and the need to evolve into an uncertain future saturates every minute of run time, though not always outwardly. An English professor is seen in one scene lecturing on Henry David Thoreau and his sense of anguish after realizing that he himself was adding to the desecration of the woods he loved so much just by simply living within them. Outside, meanwhile, a massive crane rips ravenously into the sidewalk in an idyllic setting on campus. The "congenial fantasies of observing nature" that Thoreau bemoans in Walden are just as applicable to meddling in storied national history.


Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’ Manakamana

Similar sentiments are echoed, though even more subtly, in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’ Manakamana, another example of direct, observational nonfiction cinema screening at NYFF this year. Sponsored by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (another school with a historic, near religious following), the program behind last year’s visceral, innovative fishing industry documentary Leviathan, the film centers on the titular sacred Hindu temple: a Nepalese monument said to grant the wishes of the pilgrims that flock to it. The viewer never actually gets a complete sense of context from the film, nor does the audience ever actually see the temple. Instead, the filmmakers simply placed a 16mm camera in the cable cars that travel up to the temple. One roll of film is equal to a single one way trip, giving viewers just under ten minutes to get to know characters as they traverse up and down the mountain-top place of worship.

Even with this ingeniously simple premise, Manakamana manages to be more than just a voyeuristic experiment and instead touches on the same feelings of modern tumult in the face of ancient reverence. This is most obviously demonstrated in the form of three Nepalese metal-heads who grin, joke about smuggling a drum set up to the temple, and take an almost self-satirical amount of selfies; all while an unexplained kitten crawls over them. Soon after, a pair of elderly men makes the commute, one of which rambles about the days before buses and cable cars, when he had to make the journey on foot over a period of days from his village. Uphill both ways, no doubt.

It’s difficult for audiences of these two films to distinguish whether things were “better” in the past. Surely a ten-minute cable car ride is an improvement, even if it attracts tourists and non-believers? And were the public demonstrations of the '60s at Berkeley really that much better organized and less of a nuisance, or has nostalgia aged them to a point of finely tuned historical significance? Even the admittedly antiquated use of rolls of 16mm film to capture trips that occasionally turn out to be ten-minute periods of insignificance call into question the conflict between history and modernization. Had they shot digitally (like At Berkeley, one of the few films in Wiseman’s oeuvre to have eschewed the film format) the filmmakers could have easily just deleted the "boring" footage, saving a small fortune in film and development costs. These questions of whether or not the past is superior are never answered, or even attempted to be answered, and instead viewers are left with fascinating portraits to be viewed by some as symbolic artifacts degrading rapidly into chaos, and others as simply "modern."

To give the impression that either film, in spite of their length and languid pacing is stodgy and dry would be massively disingenuous. Berkeley ranks among Wiseman’s best work, with every overheard conversation being timely and thought provoking, and every vignette adding to a larger picture. It even manages to wrangle up some real tension in what could arguably be called the film’s climax, when a student demonstration occupies the campus library, intercut with a room full of faculty watching the clock and dreading the possibility that they’ll have to call in security if the protestors overstay a set curfew.

Manakamana, surprisingly enough, manages to pull off some irreverently hilarious moments as well, which come across as especially ludicrous considering their setting. One highlight included stern-faced elderly women and melting popsicle sticks, which is almost too good to spoil, and goes so far as to devolve into outright slapstick. Between these two films – one a near-epic work from an undisputed master, the other closer to an installation-work oddity – the audience is left with a comprehensive portrait of how we view history worldwide. The times are changing everywhere, and even the holiest of monuments aren't immune to it.

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