At Berkeley / Frederick Wiseman / 2013 / fivestar

Active Ingredients: Thematic editing; Political tone without didacticism
Side Effects: Improvisational feel to photography; Inconsistency in later scenes

“What is it about Berkeley,” a professor asks her classroom in Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary. Over the course of the film, we see several possible answers. It’s an historical myth, an ideal and a hotbed for radical politics. It’s a collection of classrooms, boardrooms and lawns; a concert hall, a library and a stairwell. It’s a location meant for learning and studying. The problem only arises when these locations are filled with people.

Like all of Wiseman’s films, At Berkeley painstakingly details how public institutions, by definition, pit the communal against the personal. The University of California at Berkeley, like any public institution, is equally composed of its organizational mission and the people it serves, and while these two elements need each other to exist, they necessarily find themselves at odds. Filmed over two particularly tumultuous years around campus, which find the university struggling to cut costs while continuing to offer high-quality education, At Berkeley exposes the wonderful contradictions that make any institution succeed—and fail—to function.

Since 1969’s Titicut Follies, Wiseman has used an observational approach to dramatize the conflict between public institutions and the human beings who populate them. The filmmaker’s 38th such film is no different, documenting extended sessions in classrooms and boardrooms as administrators and students alike go about their daily lives at Berkeley. The film clocks in at just over 4 hours and offers no narration or talking heads, but it’s never dull. Wiseman’s restrained and elegant style allows him to present his material simply while still mining it for incredible richness and nuance.

Between seminars on economics, meetings on organizational efficiency and scenes of student protest, Wiseman offers beautifully poetic interstitial montages of the campus going about its business. They show the breadth and humility of all the small events that make up like at Berkeley, but they also demonstrate Wiseman’s keen eye for the rhythms of people and their movements. He is uniquely attuned to the way individuals assemble and interact, for it is in these moments that personal motives butt heads with public interests.

Again and again in At Berkeley, this complicated relationship between the individual and the collective is emphasized, whether in lectures on genetics and entomology or in meetings about effective leadership and resource management. These juxtapositions speak to the power of Wiseman’s artistry, not just as an image-maker but as an editor. As the film’s many isolated fragments begin to pile up over its extended running time, patterns and themes emerge organically. Each scene builds from the last, combining so effortlessly as to belie the rigor and complexity of the film’s structure.

A crowd of screaming fans at a football game hold up small tiles, which combine to create the Cal logo; a student organizer reminds demonstrators that during a protest “you aren’t you, you are us.” The goal of Wiseman’s career-long project is to juxtapose images such as these. Using montage to show us a familiar place under a new organizing logic, Wiseman also shows us how individuals become collectives. In his films, single images become greater than the sum of their parts in much the same way people do: with great effort and tremendous resolve.

[At Berkeley opens tomorrow at the MFA in Boston and continues throughout December.]