At Berkeley review: impeccable work from Fred Wiseman

At Berkeley
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Director: Frederick Wiseman
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Starring: N/A
Running Time: 4 hrs 4 mins

You don’t need a critic to tell you that Frederick Wiseman’s four-hour study of how the 2010 budget crisis impacted upon the University of California at Berkeley is not for everyone.

For more than 40 years, the great documentarian has defined his medium and milieu with painstaking enquiries into the structure, nature and psychology of organisation. A scientific film-maker, Wiseman is an institution who is fascinated by institutions. And so he shoots schools, hospitals and prisons for months (and sometimes years) at a time. He whittles away at hundreds of hours of footage until a feasible feature film emerges.

In the post-reality-TV era, his work reminds us that fly-on-the-wall film-making is worthless if your subjects are mugging at the camera. There is no evidence of the Hawthorne Effect in Wiseman pictures; the director never uses a frame until his subjects have forgotten that the camera is there.

His methodology hasn't changed since Titicut Follies, his 1967 film about the treatment of inmates at a Massachusetts facility and an acknowledged influence on Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master.


Unsurprisingly, At Berkeley is characterised by monastic detachment and the mundane. Many meetings are observed from the sidelines as academics, students and staff discuss the future of a university that was conceived as Ivy League outside the Ivy League. Berkeley was founded on an ideal that people should be able to study even if they weren't part of the elite. But budget cuts prompt a crisis and not a little soul searching. Who pays for education? Who should pay for education? And why?

Away from the bottom line, the viewer glimpses the weird formality of sorority culture and overhears a mess of intriguing ideas: "America is founded on exploitation". Or "Poverty wasn't just democratised because Angelina Jolie and Bono went to Africa".

Fans of the Wiseman oeuvre have little to fear from any economic crunch: at 244 minutes, viewer gets plenty of bang for their bucks. Well, not bang exactly. But an impeccably worked thesis awaits.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic