Frederick Wiseman Finds Middle Class Anxiety in “At Berkeley”

Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman had long wanted to film a university and his latest documentary At Berkeley, opening this week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, captures one of the pinnacles of higher learning as it confronts an unprecedented crossroads. U.C. Berkeley sits at the zenith of public higher education. The flagship of the 10-campus University of California system, the campus' faculty and researchers have won dozens of Nobel Prizes as well as nearly a dozen Pulitzer Prizes and even 20 Academy Awards. Unlike its top tier/Ivy League brethren, however, it has operated with a mandate from the state to provide a quality education to its qualifying students regardless of economic background. Established in 1868, it has ranked consistently high among the world's top public universities and, in the 60s, it played a central role in the rising counter-culture and free-speech movements.

The backbone of the university's growth into an educational hegemon was its support from the state. That support, however, began to wane to the point where it now only provides a trickle of what it once did. Veteran award-winning documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (Hospital, Public Housing, La Danse) turns on his camera as Berkeley confronts the double assault of a state in financial crisis and a waning commitment to public education. Wiseman's signature style is very present throughout the feature that unfolds over four hours: no voiceovers and no interviews.

If the film has a star, it is the campus' Canadian-born chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, a physicist who wears a smile even as he manages an unprecedented funding emergency. The film gets personal, "auditing" a cross-section of classes from English to philosophy to science and "eavesdrops" on conversations among faculty, students and staff. If there is a crux that holds the disparate parts together, it is middle-class anxiety. Students throughout unload their fears of rising costs with some falling into tears. At one poignant moment, though, an African-America student tells her counterparts that money had always been an issue with her community, even in so-called prosperous times.

FilmLinc Daily spoke to Wiseman about At Berkeley before its theatrical release this weekend. He gives insight into tackling a huge project, one of his biggest in years. He discusses why he did not want to shoot at an Ivy League school (he holds a Yale Law degree) and his signature approach to non-fiction filmmaking.


                                                                  
FilmLinc Daily: What about U.C. Berkeley interested you in particular and how does it typify the state of public higher education across the U.S. generally?

Frederick Wiseman: I've been doing a series of films about institutions for a while and I've always wanted to do a university, and Berkeley is the greatest public university in the world, so I thought it would be great to go there. I contacted the chancellor there and he said, "OK." I didn't want to do a private institution like Harvard, Yale or Princeton because they are well endowed. Since public education affects so many people in America and Berkeley is the leader in providing a public university education, I wanted to [go there] not only in terms of the curriculum, but also knowing that public education is dealing with a crisis and I wanted to see how the administration is dealing with that crisis.

FD: Berkeley is, of course, a very large campus with upwards of 35,000 students as well as thousands of staff. I'd imagine that physically it was quite an undertaking to cover it and a much different dynamic in terms of filming compared to some of your more recent films that were in much more of a contained space. What was your modus operandi?

FW: I had a consultant who was a retired associate chancellor who had been at Berkeley for 30 years. So I used him as a liaison. If I wanted to go to an English class, for example, I'd ask him which ones might be available the following day or whatever. If I wanted to find out what meetings were going on over the course of a week or couple weeks, he'd be able to call the chancellor's office to find out what was going on. So I had ideas about [the project] but in terms of implementation and the knowledge of what was happening, I'd use him as a liaison.

FD: So did the school give you free rein as far as access?

FW: They gave me absolutely free rein. The only things I couldn't shoot were [faculty] tenure discussions, which is quite understandable because there's a lot of personal information being discussed there and exchanges about one's capacity or incapacity to achieve tenure.

The crew consisted of myself and two other people. The cameras were hand-held and there were no lights. So it was a very simple system and we shot where there was decent light. I tried not to be too obtrusive, but if anyone didn't want to be on camera, they just had to say, "no." It's my experience not only at Berkeley, but in all of my other films, that it's very rare that anyone objects to being filmed nor do people act for the camera. You have to constantly make judgments as you do [in any other profession]. If you get the feeling that someone is conning you, you stop filming. I don't do artificial situations, though. I don't ask for interviews. I'm just capturing people as they go about their everyday activities. So my experience, 99.9% of the time, is that people neither reject nor perform. If more people were able to act, then Hollywood would have a lot more choices than they do for great actors. But the truth is, most of us don't have that capacity.

FD: Aside from the scale of the campus, what were the challenges you faced doing At Berkeley?

FW: It's an enormous university and there are, of course, simultaneously hundreds if not thousands of things going on. I make no effort to be representative. I have no idea how to do that. So I use my instinct in deciding what is appropriate to shoot. I wanted to see how the administration is dealing with the economic crisis and I wanted to attend classes in different subjects—science, engineering, English, philosophy, history, etc.—and get a sense of the student body as well as extra-curricular activities and sports. Any one of those subjects could have turned into a five-hour movie, but I wanted to cover all those topics.

I started out this film as I have with all my other films, which is that I don't start out with a thesis. I don't make a film in order to support a particular point of view. Over the course of 12 weeks we shot 250 hours of [footage] and then spent [a good amount of time] editing. And it's in the editing when you get a chance to think through what the experience means. A film is, in one sense, a consequence of what I learned from being at the place for 12 weeks and spending 14 months going through the material.

FD: For you though, does the editing process begin in your mind at all as you're filming?

FW: During the filming there's so much going on; there's no real time to think about editing. Of course if you have a great scene you note it, but I'm so busy trying to make up in my mind what I'm going to shoot and how to shoot it that I can't think about the editing. What goes on in the editing is that I have to ask myself, "Why?" Why is someone saying what they're saying? What's the point of the meeting? Are people saying one thing but meaning another? Is there a hidden agenda? I have to ask myself the same questions that anyone else does. It's just trying to figure out what's going on. I'm not suggesting I'm right when I think I've figured it out, but I have to a theory in order to edit a sequence into a usable form… and condense it into five or six minutes.

FD: Talk about some of those meetings. As you mentioned, you were at Berkeley during a particularly challenging time for a school that is facing one of its biggest financial crises that could have potentially up-ended its status as one of the most pre-eminent public universities in this country or anywhere. What was the administration facing and how did they tackle this crisis?

FW: Thirty or so years ago—I'm not sure exactly how long—50% – 60% of the budget came from the state. When I made the film, they were getting 16% and now they're getting 9%. It's a great public university, but they're only getting 9% of their money from the State of California. That affects everything from salaries to scholarships to maintenance to constructing new buildings. It affects every aspect of university life. So one of the things I was most interested in was how they're dealing with all of this. They decided to take more students from out of state. Out-of-state students pay more tuition than in-state students. But they did something that I thought was very clever. When they increased the number of out-of-state students who could pay a bigger tuition, one-third of that tuition went to scholarship.

At the same time that they took out-of-state students, they didn't diminish the number of in-state students; they simply enlarged the student body. So they were able to preserve the number of scholarships. Berkeley has more Pell Grant students than the Ivy League and Stanford combined. It's a commitment on the part of the administration to help low-income students. Education is one of the keys to [social mobility].

FD: At Berkeley shows a couple of instances of student protests, including students occupying the library. U.C. Berkeley, of course, was one of the major ongoing flash-points of protest in the 60s. How are these different from those four decades ago—a time that many look back on with warm nostalgia?

FW: I'm not knowledgable enough about student protests, nor am I good at generalizations since I don't have enough experience with this. It was interesting, though, to listen to the faculty about what went on in the 60s and listen to their point of view on the difference between what happened then and what is happening with protests now. Given the fact that the state has cut the budget so drastically to the university system, it was difficult to understand how students could be asking for free tuition. It didn't demonstrate a realistic understanding of the state the university system was in… I think if you're going to protest you should protest for goals that are achievable.

FD: I heard a rumor you're working on a new film that is set in the National Gallery in London…

FW: Yes and it's going well. I am hoping to be finished with it this winter.

At Berkeley opens Friday, November 8 at Film Society of Lincoln Center for a one-week run. Frederick Wiseman will participate in a Skype Q&A at the 1:00pm screening on Saturday, November 9.

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