In its refusal to identify anyone by name or job title, this four-hour film — Frederick Wiseman’s 38th institutional documentary since 1967 — makes a profound statement about democratic participation. It’s not the “me," but the “we,” that keeps democracy alive. From the humblest janitor to the most esteemed professor, everyone belongs to the same community and is equally important. The modern university is a complex organism that, to function efficiently, needs every component, including someone to cut the grass.
A documentary necessarily conveys a point of view, and although Wiseman, as is his wont, is neither seen nor heard in a film that proceeds without commentary or subtitles, his spirit is palpable. Without overtly editorializing, the film quietly and steadfastly champions state-funded public education available to all. In the language of one commentator, the film’s subject is “how capitalism is reshaping education” in an age of dwindling resources and the fading of the middle-class dream. Diversity, to which Berkeley appears deeply committed, is central to the enterprise.
“At Berkeley” begins with a staff meeting where a Mr. Birgeneau addresses the steady erosion of California’s financial support for the university, which plunged drastically in only a few years. A question that runs through the film is how and where you cut back without harming the quality and availability, of education in one of the country’s most respected institutions; the fundamental right to higher education, who should pay for it and the worsening burden of student debt.
“At Berkeley” is structured like a marathon multidisciplinary study session, interrupted by breaks in which students are shown lounging on the lawns, throwing Frisbees and attending a football game. With only one reference to sports in the film, Berkeley is portrayed as the furthest thing from a party school, and the students it observes are intensely engaged and precociously articulate.