Fifty years ago, Frederick Wiseman was a Boston University law professor ready to try his hand at documentary filmmaking. His first feature in 1967 introduced the immersive style that's defined his work ever since. Free of guiding narration, Wiseman's films cast viewers into the inner workings of intricate social systems, leaving us to mingle among the humans that make such systems go. In 1967's Titicut Follies, this meant daily operations at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts; the title is the name of the hospital talent show. Films that followed included Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court (1973), Ballet (1995), Public Housing (1997), State Legislature (2007), and three dozen more, all of which add up to an oeuvre that has won Wiseman a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and singular esteem among filmmakers.
Now 83, Wiseman has released a huge new documentary, At Berkeley, a four-hour, cellular-level tour of the University of California at Berkeley. Reportedly given full access on campus, Wiseman and his camera take us into student-orientation meetings, teacher-training sessions, poetry lectures, faculty meetings, crisis-management discussions, laboratory research sessions, student-led consciousness-building conversations, and, yes, one extravagantly Berkeleyesque student protest. Scene after scene offer blasts of scholastic humanity in its natural habitat, up close and at length. (Along with narration, Wiseman rejects quick cuts. Even the most procedural scenes become somewhat hypnotic as they regularly cross the 10-minute mark.)
Of course, it's fascinating. Drawn from more than 100 hours of footage, At Berkeley pins down a series of moments—some powerfully humane, others chillingly corporate—that are individually rich with substance and steadily accumulate into something more. Surprises are rife. I went in expecting small human moments and was confronted by the highly theatrical performances people give in real life: teachers giving lectures, campus guides giving tours, chancellors addressing board meetings, students being called upon in class, the whole theater-of-the-self of progressive young students. All the pageantry of The University is well captured, bolstered by Berkeley's evident-if-imperfect diversity and strenuous adherence to collegiate ideals. (The diplomatic hoops the staff and faculty jump through to protect students' First Amendment rights are lightly hilarious and deeply heartening.)
But all romance is soon smeared with reality. In the film's most unnerving scene, we see young college representatives giving struggling students a pep talk about taking out loans for college: "You owe it to yourself!" Another squirmy scene finds professors being dressed down for knowingly submitting subpar tenure recommendations, and the university's money troubles are laid out for all to see. If this largely plot-free film has a villain, it's Disinvestment by the State, a factual reality that's leaving the proudly public university scrambling for new funding sources and playing with the idea of one day going private.
Heading into At Berkeley's third hour (the film is shown without an intermission, so take your pick of when to pee), viewers are plunged into the long-simmering student protest, which takes over the campus for most of a day, and which Wiseman captures beautifully. One scene communicates the rush of group uprising and protest, the next reminds us of the unfortunate screechiness of certain human voices and the dispiriting diffuseness of undergrad politics. Further emotional verisimilitude comes from the film's own running time. As the fourth hour clicks in, we find ourselves in a typically expansive scene of a teacher lecturing on the poetry of John Donne. Watching her speaking eloquently on a subject I could no longer rouse my overloaded brain to care about gave me a feeling that was distinctly collegiate. Go, watch, wander out when you need to, but come back, because it's great.