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With: Robert J. Birgeneau, George W. Breslauer, Robert Reich
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Frederick Wiseman
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 244
Date: 11/08/2013

At Berkeley (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Berkeley in the 21st Century

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Frederick Wiseman should be a household name. He's one of America's most legendary and singular documentary filmmakers. Age 83 as of this writing, he made his first film in 1967, Titicut Follies, a powerful depiction of the inner workings of a hospital for the criminally insane. He followed it with the striking, disturbing High School (1968), and has spent his subsequent career making similar movies about institutions. His style has been correctly described as "fly-on-the-wall." He never draws attention to his camera. None of his subjects is ever interviewed, or even identified. No one speaks to the audience directly. The effect is one of eavesdropping, unseen.

At Berkeley is Wiseman's 38th film, and it's one of the longer ones, running four hours and four minutes. The last film of his that I saw was the incredible Boxing Gym, which was normal feature length. But the longer running time does not affect the pacing of Wiseman's movies. Berekley simply has more to look at, and takes a little longer.

Though Wiseman's films are notable for their attempted objectivity, Wiseman seems to have visited UC Berkeley at a particularly volatile time. State funding of universities has dropped significantly, and the school has had to raise tuitions as well as cut employee benefits. A large number of scenes take place in staff or teacher meetings, and money is often the topic of conversation.

Another major event unfolds when a major campus protest takes place. Their major concern seems to be tuition prices, and their soapbox speeches include the fact that admission to the university was once free. It's both sad and revealing to watch the faculty calmly dismiss the list of demands (they're slightly haphazard and even contradictory) and end the protest anticlimactically.

Other scenes take place in classrooms, discussing poetry, or physics, or economics. Sometimes students passively take notes, and other times are involved in animated discussions. Viewers that have seen the current documentary Inequality for All will recognize Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, teaching. It's not clear what his class is all about, but he's telling a story about "yes men" and how important it is to actually speak your mind.

Wiseman's method isn't exactly outspoken, nor is it passive and pleasing. He's one of the few filmmakers alive that allows viewers to poke around within a scene at their own speed, taking away whatever thoughts you feel like. You may appreciate what a teacher is saying about a certain poem, or you may simply be people watching. I was going to make a joke about how, after four hours of At Berkeley, I deserved my own honorary degree. But instead of book learning, this movie is more about life learning.

Note: the movie opened November 8, 2013 in New York. For my local readers, and UC Berkeley students, it opens December 6 at the Roxie Cinema.

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