The University of California at Berkeley, the oldest and most prestigious member of a ten campus public education system, is also one of the finest research and teaching facilities in the world. The film, At Berkeley, shows the major aspects of university life, its intellectual and social mission, its obligation to the state and to larger ideas of higher education, as well as illustrates how decisions are made and implemented by the administration in collaboration with its various constituencies.
“At Berkeley,” the documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s magisterial examination of the University of California, Berkeley, is conspicuous for not identifying the scores of people shown teaching, studying and exchanging ideas in and out of the classroom. Some may recognize the university’s chipper, ever-smiling former chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, who retired this year. An even more prominent figure is Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor, now a professor at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, who delivers an insightful lecture on leadership and the need for self-evaluation.
In its refusal to identify anyone by name or job title, this four-hour film — Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
–Stephen Holden, The New York Times