Talking Movies: ‘At Berkeley’ takes an important look at public education

At Berkeley
At Berkeley plays this at FilmScene this Sunday at 12 p.m.

A very long documentary that simply observes all facets of a complex institution is probably the most urgent movie that you can see this year. Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley, which is playing at FilmScene at 12 p.m. on Sunday, May 4 as part of the Bijou Film Forum, is a loving, subtly-heartbreaking examination of the University of California’s flagship institution, arguably the greatest experiment in public education. As public investment in education at all levels is dwindling, it’s absolutely crucial we take a good hard look, as Wiseman does, at what our society is throwing under the bus.

One of the things I love about pastry chefs is that they never defend pastry, even though it’s sometimes attacked as fattening and unhealthy. They just go on making éclairs and fruit tarts as delectably as they can, and we can’t resist. Too often, those who believe in public education go on the defensive about the value of critical thinking or citizenship. If all you play is defense, you’re never going to advance. At Berkeley takes the pastry-chef route, and without any special pleading, it shows us just how splendid and delectable public education can be.

Wiseman immerses us in Berkeley’s education and research. We see graduate students working hard with their mentors on how to fix the mechanical legs of a paraplegic—they aren’t working for profit, but for the immediate human good. We sit in on heated discussions between students about how their socioeconomic backgrounds have shaped them and what responsibilities they have to make of their education. We get our minds blown by a linguist lecturing on the nature of time (did you know that some cultures talk of the past as being ahead of us, and the future as behind us?). We parse a paragraph of Thoreau, get the insider’s dope on how the Department of Labor is run and sit in with students at a protest.

But we also see the behind-the-scenes work of the university: the custodians sweeping the stairs and mowing the lawn, the students hanging out, the glee clubs singing and the community overlapping in various ways with the school. We also get long, troubling scenes of meetings in which administrators and trustees struggle with maintaining the character of a truly public education in the face of our comprehensive disinvestment in it.

Frederick Wiseman is one of the few great documentarians in film history, but those unfamiliar with Wiseman’s work may be disoriented by his approach. He gives you no information beyond what his camera sees—no names, no dates, no commentary, no talking heads. Moreover, he lingers for 5-, 10-, 15-minute stretches on his subjects. His drama and his wit are in the subtlety of how the scenes are shot and stitched together. His manner and his matter are never less than fascinating, but if your interest is used to being held by three-second jump cuts, then you’ll need a readjustment period.

But you will quickly adjust to this beautiful movie. At Berkeley often makes you feel like you’re back in the college classroom, or back in what you wished a college classroom would have been like. The movie isn’t just a quiet celebration of public education, it’s a paean to the value of deep, slow learning.

I must admit a certain amount of pessimism about the state of public education. To take a local example, despite the fact that our state economy has been and continues to do extremely well, and that Iowa City is growing and thriving, our school board is hard at work deciding how many foreign languages and how much music to cut from the curriculum.

But I’m too American to sit by and watch our demise. We have to give voice to what’s valuable and fight for it. Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley is an important movie for us all to watch. After the showing at FilmScene, there will be a dialogue with administrators and professors from The University of Iowa. Raise your voice.