Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: At Berkeley

A sometimes fascinating, sometimes not, four-hour visit to the Berkeley campus offers insights into what the great, sprawling public university is today.

Nov 7, 2013

-By Deborah Young


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1388978-Berkley_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

It’s surprising how much remains to be said about the University of California, Berkeley, after four hours of Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley, his classy-as-ever 38th documentary about America’s leading public institution of higher learning. At times fascinating, at times not, its in-depth look at the administration, campus, students and faculty offers an insider's view into the way American academia functions, which in itself should interest uptown audiences as well as foreigners curious about a major American institution. Given the subject, however, the public will inevitably be more limited than for the director’s visually exciting films about the Paris Opera Ballet (2009) and the dancers at Crazy Horse (2011).

Following his time-honed philosophy of non-intervention, Wiseman edits footage gathered over four months of shooting on campus without a word of narration or an obviously imposed POV. The clearly focused, fixed-camera images do the rest. Yet in the case of Berkeley, the name itself conjures up so much that one would have liked some historical perspective to compare present with past. Most American viewers will be aware that the university was a hotbed for left-wing activism in the 1960s at the height of the hippie movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, not to mention the famous battle over People's Park when Governor Ronald Reagan sent the National Guard to campus for a month. None of that background appears in the film.

What we do see is a highly articulate black woman talking about feeling excluded from study groups by white students. Later, in another scene, a group of veterans talk about their qualms about following their military experience with becoming Berkeley students.

Times have changed, but this film is not about that change. Yet perhaps Wiseman makes this point in chronicling a library sit-in staged by a sizeable number of angry (but not enraged) students, who present a list of demands that the administration ably fends off. The latter is perfectly prepared to defend occupancy of campus buildings with a plan involving campus and local police forces. But the standoff isn’t necessary: The demonstrators leave the building on time, all by themselves.

Much of the film is a sober behind-the-scenes record of how a modern university administration faces the challenge of diminishing public funding (now down to a miserly 18 percent). Despite people saying so on camera again and again, there is no real sense that Berkeley, so well-run and full of smart teachers and students, is all that unique. Like other places that cost a lot, it points students in profitable career directions, champions excellence and vies with its competitors for outstanding faculty, actively recruits new students in Asia, and is beefing up its research program, which is going strong and can offer a way out of the funding crisis.

The most amusing parts of the film are unquestionably visits to the classrooms and samples of teaching, which range from reading John Donne’s sexy poems to a totally abstract lesson in astronomy where the joke is it’s all incomprehensible. Behind-the-scenes administrative meetings take up a little more screen time than they’re worth.

The Hollywood Reporter


Film Review: At Berkeley

A sometimes fascinating, sometimes not, four-hour visit to the Berkeley campus offers insights into what the great, sprawling public university is today.

Nov 7, 2013

-By Deborah Young


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1388978-Berkley_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

It’s surprising how much remains to be said about the University of California, Berkeley, after four hours of Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley, his classy-as-ever 38th documentary about America’s leading public institution of higher learning. At times fascinating, at times not, its in-depth look at the administration, campus, students and faculty offers an insider's view into the way American academia functions, which in itself should interest uptown audiences as well as foreigners curious about a major American institution. Given the subject, however, the public will inevitably be more limited than for the director’s visually exciting films about the Paris Opera Ballet (2009) and the dancers at Crazy Horse (2011).

Following his time-honed philosophy of non-intervention, Wiseman edits footage gathered over four months of shooting on campus without a word of narration or an obviously imposed POV. The clearly focused, fixed-camera images do the rest. Yet in the case of Berkeley, the name itself conjures up so much that one would have liked some historical perspective to compare present with past. Most American viewers will be aware that the university was a hotbed for left-wing activism in the 1960s at the height of the hippie movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, not to mention the famous battle over People's Park when Governor Ronald Reagan sent the National Guard to campus for a month. None of that background appears in the film.

What we do see is a highly articulate black woman talking about feeling excluded from study groups by white students. Later, in another scene, a group of veterans talk about their qualms about following their military experience with becoming Berkeley students.

Times have changed, but this film is not about that change. Yet perhaps Wiseman makes this point in chronicling a library sit-in staged by a sizeable number of angry (but not enraged) students, who present a list of demands that the administration ably fends off. The latter is perfectly prepared to defend occupancy of campus buildings with a plan involving campus and local police forces. But the standoff isn’t necessary: The demonstrators leave the building on time, all by themselves.

Much of the film is a sober behind-the-scenes record of how a modern university administration faces the challenge of diminishing public funding (now down to a miserly 18 percent). Despite people saying so on camera again and again, there is no real sense that Berkeley, so well-run and full of smart teachers and students, is all that unique. Like other places that cost a lot, it points students in profitable career directions, champions excellence and vies with its competitors for outstanding faculty, actively recruits new students in Asia, and is beefing up its research program, which is going strong and can offer a way out of the funding crisis.

The most amusing parts of the film are unquestionably visits to the classrooms and samples of teaching, which range from reading John Donne’s sexy poems to a totally abstract lesson in astronomy where the joke is it’s all incomprehensible. Behind-the-scenes administrative meetings take up a little more screen time than they’re worth.

The Hollywood Reporter
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

Citizenfour
Film Review: Citizenfour

Documentary account of how Edward Snowden leaked intelligence to the world press. More »

Glen Campbell I'll Be Me
Film Review: Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me

Alzheimer's is given an unforgettably human face here, and that face belongs to a music legend. More »

White Bird in a Blizzard
Film Review: White Bird in a Blizzard

A clichéd indie about a girl’s coming-of-age amidst her mother’s disappearance that, despite a sturdy lead performance by Shailene Woodley, is undone by hackneyed, go-nowhere plotting. More »

Exists
Film Review: Exists

Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sanchez returns to the faux-found footage well and hauls out a bucketful of Bigfoot in this derivative but creepy shocker. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

John Wick
Film Review: John Wick

Retired hit man seeks revenge on Russian mob in an above-average action film. More »

Fury Review
Film Review: Fury

American tanks fight superior German forces in the closing days of World War II. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here