“A lot of people think that the real function of documentary film is to show bad people doing evil things, and therefore change the world, and make the world safe for documentary filmmaking,” Frederick Wiseman said Tuesday night from the stage of the Pacific Film Archive Theater. “I think it’s equally important to show people of goodwill and intelligence doing good things, and that’s just as much of a subject as indifferent or callous or banal people doing horrible things.”
And that, he suggested, is just what he’s done with At Berkeley, four hours and four minutes in the life of the UC Berkeley campus, shot over three months in late 2010 and opening Friday for a limited run in Bay Area theaters.
Wiseman, a legendary documentary filmmaker famous for showing bad people doing evil things — a reputation with roots in his first film, 1967’s notorious Titicut Follies — was voted a lifetime-achievement award Tuesday by the New York Film Critics Circle, a nod to his 40-plus cinematic explorations of institutions running the gamut from a state hospital for the criminally insane (Follies) to a police department, a zoo, a primate-research center, a public-housing complex, a state legislature, the U.S. Army and, more recently, a boxing gym, a ballet troupe and an erotic dance club.
Yet while he’d made two films about high schools over a career spanning nearly a half-century — titled, in typical Wiseman fashion, High School and High School II — he’d never trained his lens on higher education until 2010, when he was granted unprecedented access to UC Berkeley officials during a period of crisis. In addition to the normal, everyday workings of the campus — class lectures and discussions, arts performances, athletic events — Wiseman and his cameraman, John Davey, captured the Oct. 7, 2010, student takeover of the Doe Library reading room and, remarkably, top-level administrators’ behind-the-scenes efforts to respond.
The result, three years later, is At Berkeley, a long, leisurely look at what makes a great public university tick. Wiseman, who eschews voiceovers and on-screen identifiers, weaves a subtle narrative comprising not only Berkeley’s groundbreaking intellectualism — for just one example, part of a classroom discussion of supernovae featuring physics professor and 2011 Nobelist Saul Perlmutter, of which Wiseman admitted he “didn’t understand a word” — but literal groundskeeping, cement-pouring and other less-heralded activities that keep body and soul together. (And if 244 minutes sounds daunting, consider the 246 hours of digital footage Wiseman chose to leave out, now on deposit, along with 45 years’ worth of his orphaned celluloid, with the Library of Congress.)
At Berkeley has been shown at a dozen film festivals in the United States and abroad, as well as in theaters from New York to Los Angeles, and gets its first commercial screenings in the Bay Area beginning on Friday. On Tuesday, the campus community had its chance not only to see the film, but to see and hear Wiseman talk about it.
That is, insofar as Wiseman is ever willing to talk about his work.
“I don’t think you like to explain the film,” he said in response to an audience member’s question after the PFA screening. “My job is to make it, and you make of it what you want.”
Just the same, the 83-year-old Wiseman, who arrived here from Paris on Monday, spent virtually all of Tuesday doing interviews and taking questions from those who give the movie its name, the people who work, study and teach at Berkeley. He was a guest speaker in a documentary-production class at the Graduate School of Journalism, chatting with professor Jon Else — an award-winning documentarian in his own right — and a dozen students for 80 minutes or so. Topics ranged from microphone brands to the relative virtues of film and high-definition video to the daily fitness regimen that enables Wiseman to put in 12-hour days during a shoot, followed by a night reviewing that day’s rushes.
“Documentary filmmaking is a sport,” he told the class.
His most startling revelation — except, perhaps, to Wiseman fanatics and Hollywood-trivia buffs — was that he once earned a paycheck for an uncredited screenwriting contribution to The Thomas Crown Affair, the 1968 heist flick starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.
As for the stars of At Berkeley, a large group of administrators and faculty with prominent roles in the film gathered Tuesday evening for a celebratory dinner at the Faculty Club, where Wiseman arrived after introducing a screening at International House. Campus officials on hand included Robert Birgeneau, Berkeley’s chancellor at the time of the shoot, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer, Associate Chancellor Linda Williams, vice chancellors Ed Denton (facilities services) and Harry LeGrande (student affairs) and retired chief of staff John Cummins, who, as Wiseman’s campus liaison, steered him to a meeting of Berkeley military veterans that provides one of the most inspiring scenes in At Berkeley.
Featured faculty players who turned out to fete the filmmaker included professors Ananya Roy (city and regional planning) — who hadn’t yet seen the movie — Candace Slater (Spanish and Portuguese), Homayoon Kazerooni (mechanical engineering), Suzanne Guerlac (French), Maura Nolan (English) and, briefly, Perlmutter.
Later, sharing the PFA Theater stage with Wiseman, Birgeneau was asked by an audience member about the decision to allow him into the campus’s inner sanctums during such turbulent times. Was there a moment, the questioner wondered, “when you needed to take a leap of faith” that the final product — which, as with all Wiseman films, was his and his only — would present the campus in a favorable light?
“It is true that that almost everybody I knew, especially the faculty that I talked to, said, ‘You must be crazy — especially if you’re in the upper administration — to take this risk,’” Birgeneau said. But he was “proud of how we as a community as a whole were dealing with the situation,” he added, and “thought it was important to record a really transformational series of events that were occurring in California at that time in history.”
“I felt if Berkeley’s not willing to take these kinds of risks,” said the former chancellor, “what institution is going to?”
As for whether the film tilts too sympathetically toward the administration in its struggles with cutbacks in Sacramento and protests on campus, Wiseman told the documentary class of a French critic who panned recent efforts like 2009’s La Danse, about the Paris Opera Ballet, complaining, in the director’s words, “they’re not Wiseman films, because they’re not showing poor people being exploited by the state.”
“That’s not an uncommon view, that I’ve sold out,” he said. “And I’m sure there are people who’ll feel I’ve sold out because the administration in At Berkeley comes off as intelligent, dedicated people.
“It’s related to the question, have I gone soft, have I switched sides? There will be people who see At Berkeley and say, ‘Wiseman is now on the side of the administration. He used to be on the side of the people.’
“I like to think that the difference is the material,” Wiseman said. His approach to Berkeley in 2010, he suggested, was much the same as his approach to the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Mass., in 1967: “I made a movie about what I found, what I discovered.”
And what did he find at Berkeley? Don’t ask. He’ll only tell you to see for yourself.
At Berkeley will be broadcast nationwide on PBS on Jan. 13, 2014. For more on where and how to see it, visit the At Berkeley website.