At Berkeley, an Independent Lens production, will premiere on PBS Monday, January 13. This four-hour documentary takes a look at the Fall 2010 semester of University of California Berkeley — a tough period, during which this public educational facility faced a significant reduction in state support ($308 million during 2010 compared with $497 million in 2001), and increased fees for undergraduate and graduate students. The school was also facing a potential loss of 460 faculty positions.
It is difficult to capture the spirit of a large university in a matter of hours, especially a school with more than 35,000 students. Frederick Wiseman’s film feels like a personal visit to the school, but the problem with At Berkeley is that it’s difficult to get past the first 30 to 40 minutes of the film. The documentary opens with students trying their best to appear erudite during sociology class. Well, it may be a sociology class, but without narration (if the broadcast film is like the preview version I watched), the film’s opening is rather aimless and formless.
Another issue is that the talking heads: students, faculty, teaching assistants or administrators, are never identified, with no indication of department, meeting or class subject matter the viewer is watching. In some instances, we are shown the outside of a campus building, and we can only assume that the class or meeting being filmed was held there. It is also a problem that academic jargon is never defined. For example, it’s up to the viewer to realize that “G.S.I.” stands for Graduate Student Instructor.
And, although it is interesting to see the president of the university meet with what is presumably his advisory cabinet and senior administrators, the body language of the participants signal that they were not always euphoric about being present. Interestingly, Asians and Hispanics (with a couple of exceptions) seem to be notably absent from these high-level discussions.
Near the end of the overly long film – for me (the four hours felt like twenty), former Labor Secretary Robert Reich tells his students that leaders are very often denied “useful feedback.” That may also hold for his film, which might have benefited from being first screened by focus groups, and by some substantial editing. Most of the segments, which seem connected through little apparent rhyme or reason, are virtually rough, too long, uncut video clips. Tightly edited, At Berkeley would likely have been more engaging and enthralling.
The film does feature some rewarding success stories that involve the application of practical knowledge at this world class educational institution. One segment focuses on a machine that permits a man with spinal cord injuries to walk. Another features a student doing coding for a robot. But you must wade through many context-less segments to get to these treats.
People are likely to see different things when they view this documentary. Some will see a place where student demonstrations appear to threaten the educational mission. Others will note that these demonstrations resulted in an increase in minority and low-income student admissions. Some will see professors and lecturers (and sometimes students) pretentiously debating matters that have little relevance to working stiffs and taxpayers. Others will see a progressive place of learning in which 50 percent of undergrads participate in some form of meaningful research. In this, the film may accurately display the tension between a classic liberal arts education (“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”) and practical knowledge developed through strenuous and demanding research.
The citizens and taxpayers who support public educational institutions like U.C. Berkeley will find some evidence of their importance in a film like At Berkeley. Others may view this documentary and come to a conclusion unintended by the film’s makers: an elite institution, public or private, can foster elite views and behaviors.
At Berkeley may simply be a Rorschach’s test. No two individuals will watch it and receive the same impression and this may transform the lack of structure and message content (and context) into a good thing.