An epic but enlightening documentary from Frederick Wiseman looking at the revered institution
The veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman applies a methodical but delicate touch to his examinations of American institutions, depicting the lives of workers and participants in aspects of public life in long observational takes without voiceover or direct interviews. He also goes in for hefty running times.
This portrait of one of America’s most prestigious higher education institutions, the University of California, Berkeley clocks in at four hours. That’s a challenging length for any film, let alone a fairly dry documentary, and not all of the material seems crucial to the project; there are a good few scenes that skew too light and obvious, or just get dull, and could easily have been chopped.
For the most part, though, the massive length of the thing is oddly effective. The level of quiet absorption in the subject that it demands is a microcosm of the focus required to work on a degree; the hermetic atmosphere imitates the bubble of academic life; and the beautiful resonances between ideas and subjects that slowly emerge recall the most satisfying intellectual cross-pollinations of student life.
The main focus of the film is the increasing financial pressure on Berkeley, and the effect of cuts on students and staff; while staff attempt to find savings and increase fees, students honour Berkeley’s radical heritage by staging protests about the demise of free education, and the complications and limitations of both positions reveal themselves to Wiseman’s patient camera.
But he also observes just what is special, useful, strange, indulgent and archaic about moneyed university life, and asks – implicitly – just what is in store for the moral and intellectual life of a culture that will no longer pay for people to get cleverer. This is particularly useful stuff for anyone who works in higher education, and for documentary makers, but it holds rewards for anyone with the time and the stamina to take it on.
Limited release from Fri 12 Sep.