In his close looks at how systems function, the esteemed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman favors the fly-on-the-wall style. Some of those systems are as large as Madison Square Garden or the Paris Opera ballet, some as small as a homely boxing gym in Austin, Texas. Given his free-ranging curiosity about subject matter, it’s surprising it took Wiseman this long—At Berkeley is his 42nd film—to come to a major U.S. university. But it turns out his timing was very, very good.
The film was shot in 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley, not long after the housing bubble and recession; the school now gets a fraction of its former state funding. Wiseman finds administrators scrambling to make ends meet and students searching for ways to voice their fury about rising tuition at a once-free public institution. It will take Wiseman just over four hours to burrow through the layers of life at Cal, and the length allows him to challenge your expectations of what a 21st-century university must be like.