Frederick Wiseman's 'At Berkeley' offers a lengthy, layered portrait of higher education
"The film has to work on both a literal level and a metaphoric, or abstract, level," Wiseman writes in his At Berkeley director's note. Filmgoers grasping for a through line will pick up on the financial stress that permeates every corner of the school. A student who describes herself as middle-class weeps at the financial burden she's imposing on her parents. A professor advises a pair of eager students that their engineering dreams will require raising funds from government entities. Another professor expresses her concerns that increasing student fees will encourage new grads to seek out big paychecks to pay off their debts, rather than lower-paying jobs that might be more socially conscious.
The unrest percolating throughout the film culminates in coverage of a late-2011 Occupy Cal demonstration, in which the main campus library is overtaken by passionate protestors. The focus shifts away from the chanting students to UC Berkeley's behind-the-scenes response, or rather, the phone calls and meetings that decide what the response should be (a "generic acknowledgement" is met by jeers from the protestors; a heavy police presence is suggested, but not visually documented).
In the library, a young man grasps the bullhorn and advises his fellow students that they need to organize their guiding principles more efficiently — an observation echoed later by Birgeneau. Unlike the headline-grabbing demonstrations that fill UC Berkeley's storied past — its rabble-rousing legacy gets surprisingly few mentions here — there's no underlying philosophy, he points out. A few moments later, we're in a classroom, listening to students grumble about how the protests disrupted their midterms.
As its fourth hour draws to a close, At Berkeley's final sequence leaps from a discussion of one of John Donne's sexier poems into a science class discussing interplanetary space travel. Sure, it's possible, the affably geeky instructor says — but the practical concerns (like building a vessel with incredibly robust power sources that could sustain life for generations upon generations) tend to get in the way of one's brilliant ideas and imagination. Here Wiseman's affection for metaphor is made abundantly clear. *
AT BERKELEY opens Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters.
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