There is something deeply flattering about watching a film set in the place where you live out your own banal existence, an existence which is suddenly given an expanded significance by dint of its presence on the big screen.
For citizens of the People’s Republic of Berkeley, Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley, has this precise effect. Filmed as a series of glimpses into daily life at the University of California campus in the autumn of 2010, the film proceeds without an instantaneously identifiable narrative and without identifying any of the students, professors, or administrators whose conversations occupy the screen.
When At Berkeley is shown at Berkeley, of course, some of those cues are unnecessary, as depending on their vantage point, most of us have a good idea of the villains and heroes of this particular piece. Because although Wiseman’s film is ostensibly an exercise in portraiture or simple truth-telling (I understand the correct term to be cinema verite), it was shot over a twelve weeks in which student discontent rose along with tuition rates as the administration struggled to define what kind of an institution it was seeking to create. Campus characters are filmed as they go about their business, and no one is speaking directly to the camera.
There are several different kinds of episodes in the film. Firstly, there are incursions into classrooms across fields: literature, public policy, urban planning, engineering, and various sciences I wouldn’t know how to label. In the scientific fields these episodes tend to showcase some of the spectacular work being done on campus and at the National Labs which Berkeley runs. An unmediated ten-minute interval with a Nobel Prize winner leaves most of the cinema audience in the dust, a feeling that might be analogous to that felt by scientists after Wiseman throws us into an English lecture discussing the works of John Donne.
In the humanistic and social scientific classes, the episodes serve a different kind of purpose. The snippets of discussions between star professors and students in more intimate courses than most Cal students would recognise showcase the ability of the University to foster critical thinking and engage clearly brilliant students in sophisticated discussions about the state of the world. These moments also help to build a critique of the instrumentalisation of the University which is occurring literally as they speak.
These are a wonderful commercial for the University, but by showcasing celebrity faculty (and admittedly touching on the controversy surrounding the University’s efforts to retain them, efforts which often come at the cost of other faculty or students) teaching seminar-style classrooms, they present an experience which is not necessarily characteristic of students at Berkeley. My jaw dropped when I saw the luxury of some of the classrooms. I’ve taught in a half-dozen buildings on campus and attended events in probably a dozen others and haven’t ever seen classrooms and facilities as nice as these. The film presented an inner sanctum and level of intimacy (a celebrated professor of Global Poverty and Practice calls on her dozen students by name) alien to many students at Berkeley.
The film also documents conversations amongst student groups about the opportunities Berkeley provides to former military personnel, and the struggles that black students experience on a campus which has recently come under criticism for its lack of diversity.
Each episode is separated from the next by gorgeous shots of the campus, of students walking to class, studying in the halls or on balmy Memorial Glade, of maintenance workers cleaning steps or mowing the lawn, and examples of Berkeley’s quirky charm on Sproul Plaza. Some of these occur jarringly, as when the camera cuts from an intensely earnest conversation in a global poverty class to an a capella group entertaining students and administrators on the lawn of the Chancellor’s mansion.
For those of us who walk across this beautiful place on a daily basis, these scenes are perhaps less interesting than the series of conversations amongst administrators that Wiseman documents. He might enable a critique of Operation Excellence—Berkeley’s ill-advised austerity drive—but the hero of the film, presented in soft colours in plush offices, is the man responsible for the corporatisation of Berkeley, former Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.
The film portrays Birgeneau and his colleagues, working earnestly at University House and California Hall for the good of public education, as fundamentally mis-understood and wrongly-maligned by students and other critics. Birgeneau and other members of Operation Excellence, very acutely conscious of the camera in the room, repeatedly portray their efforts as the only hope of rescuing Berkeley’s public character. Whether or not these meetings and conversations contained dissenting voices or any diversity of opinion, they were left out of the film, and these segments read like an administration-created infomercial for the integrity of their efforts as they work against what is portrayed as a bloated and ossified campus community.
The only serious critiques come from juxtaposition, as when the slimy, self-congratulatory culture of Operation Excellence meetings are contrasted with former Labor Secretary and Public Policy Professor Robert Reich telling his students how important it is for decision-makers to surround themselves with people unafraid to criticise them.
There are other good moments, as when it is pointed out how when students pile up debt, irrespective of their major, their career trajectory will be bent by the weight of that debt towards the need to pay off overwhelming loans rather than towards public service or any moral imperative. Thus the problems of Birgeneau’s high-fees plus high-aid approach not only remain at the point of access, but have tremendous implications for the shape of our workforce and society.
No one has the opportunity to point out that when Birgeneau claims he is defending public education, he is misunderstanding what public education actually is. A good that is public is one which is paid for by revenue collected from society at large and is then offered to citizens of that society at no cost upon their entry. Berkeley and the University of California as a whole are nothing of the kind at this stage, and although state divestment bears primary responsibility for their privatisation, the basic dishonesty of the administration, and its enthusiasm for privatisation, are grating, particularly when presented so as fulsomely as Wiseman does.
At the end of the day, Wiseman has created a beautiful portrait of a beautiful place.
But in his efforts to document the battle for Berkeley’s soul, he suffers from the same problem as an embedded journalists in any battle zone. His documentary is asymmetric coverage of an asymmetric conflict.
In its latter stages, it covers campus protests and the blow-by-blow efforts of the administration to contain those protests. Each group both deliberated and acted, but the film is uneven in its treatment of these events. Administrators are portrayed meeting in some kind of Situation Room, rapping out commands, huddling with campus security, conferring with the campus librarian when students storm the reading room in Doe Library. Birgeneau and his team might as well be Obama and his cabinet in the moments leading up to the Bin Laden assassination.
Students, by contrast, are almost Taliban-esque, shouting, moving, lurching around the careening camera in chaotic scenes, and both Birgeneau and the filmmaker marvel at the disjointed nature of their demands.
But in such confrontations, each “side” should be documented not only in terms of its deliberations (only illustrated on the administration side), but in terms of the consequences of its actions (only illustrated in the case of the students). As those of us on campus in those days know, the slick deliberations in California Hall degenerated into spectacular violence when police blasted students with rubber bullets, beat them with batons, and crushed them with riot shields and fences. And the fragmentation of student protests belies the serious efforts of organisers to develop a message, secure buy-in from different constituencies, and bring thousands of students together to engage in a campaign of protest.
Chancellor Birgeneau and Provost George Breslauer are openly contemptuous of students, making a deliberate choice to see them as adversaries rather than allies. Birgeneau’s most obnoxious moment in the film comes when his ego gets the better of him and he boasts about his own activist past, portraying the 1960s protests as organised, monolithic in their messaging and constituencies, and instantaneously effective, ignoring the time lapse between the earliest of civil rights/anti-Vietnam war/anti-poverty/feminist/free speech protests, and their coherence into a mass movement.
The administration’s historical illiteracy extends further. They compare themselves to Clark Kerr, one of UC’s most fabled if controversial leaders, noting that students had eviscerated a man who the same community now looks upon much more favourably. But there is a critical difference. Students famously misread Kerr’s description of the multiversity in his The Uses of the University as an endorsement of the novel institutional form. With Birgeneau and his colleagues on the other hand, we have concrete examples of their individual efforts to transform and diminish UC, whether in their advocacy for differential tuition and the slow break-up of UC, in their abandonment of the public that is these days so lukewarm about its University, and as documented in this film, their open contempt for their students as lazy, misguided, and disorganised, charges which no students, faculty, or staff are given the opportunity to contest in the form of their own meetings or deliberations.At more than one point in the film, I could almost feel the cool fall air reverberate to the bells in Sather Tower on this wonderful campus of this wonderful institution. But the film fails to do justice to the politics which it attempts to document, and in today’s climate—with our Governor threatening tuition increases and California no more governable than it was in 2010, with Operation Excellence going full steam ahead—it felt very much like an epitaph for an institution whose glory years, given its conflicted history, are perhaps as mythic as its rescue by the forces of the market today.