In At Berkeley, famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman turns his astute lens to the American education system in flux. Because of the Great Recession in 2008, public universities like the University of California system are facing their largest budget cuts amidst skyrocketing tuition rates and ever-increasing number of applicants. His camera leaps from the campus quad at Berkeley to board meetings, sport matches, and safety debriefs. Progress is not guaranteed, but there’s another crop of freshmen to orientate.
Wiseman’s quiet portrait peels back the pristine sheen of a college brochure to provide a fuller sense of campus life. Rather than brief mentions of great classes or an active student body, we take time to attend lectures, discussions, musicals, recitals, theater performances, ROTC training sessions, and an outdoor a cappella concert. Raging keg parties and sordid frat-row stories need not apply.
There’s an impressive amount of access behind Berkeley’s closed-door meetings. Topics range from the state budget crunch to police protocols during student protest, and it seems like Wiseman was never asked to leave. He also spends time with students crying at a financial aid meeting, and with the organizers of a student demonstration to take over the library. (It’s important to note that filming took place during the 2009 fall semester, two years prior to the Occupy movements that sparked another wave of nationwide student protests.)
Few colleges have the legacy of Berkeley’s student protests during the tumultuous sixties, a fact Wiseman stumbles upon frequently across campus. Incidentally, many of the meetings he chooses to observe are conversational student-filled sections pertaining to class, race, and educational disparity. In classes, students speak of changing the future and becoming more aware of each other, but the people running the institution would rather conduct business as usual. Even stalwarts of the old student movements, like the smiling School Chancellor at the head of many meetings, have become a part of the system. Is revolt the ideological equivalent of a bad hairstyle, a cyclical construct that can ignite a generation only to become unpopular a few years later?
Not all students share their disruptive colleagues’ mantra. One person is upset about having her quiz interrupted by a pulled fire alarm, and a fellow dissenter opines that a protestor’s selfish act could distract firemen from legitimate emergencies. And once the student sit-in subsides, it seems like the rest of the student body wasn’t really interested in changing the status quo–there were quizzes to pass and degrees to earn. Wiseman’s perception of Berkeley isn’t always that of radical Californian rebels; it’s an acknowledgement of the apathetic malaise we’ve settled for.
At Berkeley is a snapshot of the American educational system and the stagnation of American dissention. Berkeley writes off many of its expenses with a heavy research focus, a system that could leave the arts and humanities underfunded. There’s a change to the student body, too, since the generation graduating now will be the most debt-burdened in history, and it’s uncertain whether those affected will revolt or just get back to work. And perhaps the spirit of education as a means of self-discovery is also dead, since many kids these only compete to get into prestigious ivory towers to find a career, rather than themselves. It’s a four-hour exploration of the battle between sociological conflict theory, which calls for disruptive actions like a revolution, and the overpowering need for functional theorists to maintain the infrastructure.
Is my diploma in the mail yet, Prof. Wiseman?