At Berkeley directed by Frederick Wiseman – Review by Frank L
It takes some guts to make a documentary about the administrative workings of any academic institution. Wiseman’s choice of the prestigious Berkeley adds a touch of glamour but administrative workings are fairly monotonous happenings, even if Wiseman oils the machinery by various intellectual insights into the concept of time or the use of metaphor in poems. The documentary is primarily concerned with the budgetary constraints which Berkeley faces as it endures diminishing financial contributions from the state of California while its natural intake of the children of middle class Americans continues to reduce. Berkeley and its potential students are both facing increasing financial discomfort heading towards pain. Berkeley is not unique in finding itself in this mangle of squeezed resources. It is a problem facing many third level institutions in the developed world which rely on State funding. Important issues are raised with the need for timely informed decisions by these administrators. The consequences of those decisions will only become apparent at some distant future time but it is likely they will have a substantial bearing on the whole of society. Wiseman bravely gives it over 4 hours which if longevity is the yardstick of seriousness makes it clear that he thinks it needs demanding thought and debate.
The footage was shot over 250 hours in 2010 and pared back by Wiseman to a mere 4 hours. Wiseman is a fly on the wall as he observes the various members of the administrative staff struggle with the choices that have to be made as a series of academics lecture and talk with their students on esoteric topics of travelling to the further most star in the universe or more practically trying to make an ambulatory contraption to assist a young man to walk who has severed his spinal column in an accident. There are no histrionics only reasoned debate and enquiry. The only histrionics arise from a demonstration and student occupation of a very fine reading room. Once having occupied the room, the occupiers were not united as how to proceed.
The administrative staff had well in advance carefully considered strategies as to how to deal with such an occupation. It was not long before the naïve and incompetent occupiers had dissipated themselves on their squabbles having been outmanoeuvered by the preparedness of the administration.
Wiseman allows you observe the various administrators, academics and students at work. There is constantly a sense of seriousness and endeavour. At times some of the participants are incredibly long winded about making their point and then repeat it and there is a temptation to yell at the screen and tell them firmly that there point is understood. But no one is so rude as to interrupt. It is all very mannerly and reasoned.
Four hours is a substantial period of time for any film including a documentary. Wiseman has highlighted the realities of the difficult choices that need to be made on a daily basis by third level institutions as they grapple with the complexities of diminished and diminishing resources. Wiseman makes you think about the complexities of the issues. The question arises for a viewer from this side of the Atlantic what would the documentary look like if Wiseman chose to make a similar film in an eminent third level in this island or in the neighbouring island. More food for thought!