Documentary legend Frederick Wiseman has made a career-long investigation of American institutions, and he finds perhaps his richest subject in At Berkeley, an exhilarating, four-hour immersion in life at the University Of California campus. It’s significant that the director, despite living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, alongside Harvard and MIT, has chosen to film at the nation’s most renowned public site of higher learning, at a time (fall 2010) of progressive disinvestment by the state. Funding shortages widen the gulf that separates idealism from pragmatism: How can Berkeley achieve its stated goals—the finest education, a diverse environment, preparation for the world beyond—and still mow lawns, retain faculty, and offer financial aid? Over the mammoth running time, university life is seen as an ongoing negotiation between the individual and the community: Professors debate whether their child-care services are a good investment and, elsewhere, listen to the chancellor, Robert J. Birgeneau, explain how furloughs have saved jobs. Students from disparate class backgrounds grapple with their views on social mobility. And even a famously tolerant campus can have a tense moment when a group elects to have a candid conversation on race.
At the outset, a woman introducing the school says Berkeley was founded on the notion “that people should be able to study even if they weren’t members of an elite.” The paradox is that the academic world becomes a form of the elite, although what that means is less clear. Education has grown more expensive while its long-term value has, arguably, depreciated. A middle-class student calling attention to her debt burden is encouraged to “be creative” about her living situation; Birgeneau urges departments to “exercise critical judgment on tenure cases.” The university’s ability to adapt to change is questioned. An administrator warns of the impossibility of predicting how new policies will affect interpersonal relationships. Former labor secretary Robert Reich, who teaches at the public policy school, lectures on the pitfalls of groupthink.
As in his 2010 film, Boxing Gym, Wiseman depicts the overall environment as a kind of utopia, a theme emphasized by the student activities he includes—a performance of Our Town, a discussion of Walden. It’s also a film about generational divides. Biologist Mina Bissell encourages students to challenge their elders. Time spent in robotics and prosthetics labs highlights human progress, even as these scenes function metaphorically to suggest the way the university treats students as cogs in a vast, bureaucratic machine. The key image may be of a stadium crowd, uniting to form the school’s logo. It’s here the Berkeley community most embodies the slogan heard at a rally: “You are no longer you. Now you are us.”
The film reaches a suspenseful head in its last hour, as protesters occupy the library insisting on free or drastically cheaper education, despite everything Wiseman has already demonstrated about the complexities of institutional finance. The administration—full of aging radicals itself—struggles to pay lip service to impossible demands. If Berkeley is a utopia, it’s an unsustainable one, forever trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. In that respect, it’s quite different from At Berkeley: Every moment in Wiseman’s tapestry has a place, and there’s little in it that’s not absorbing, knotty, and provocative.