Documentary master Frederick Wiseman turns his gaze to the crisis in US tertiary education.
17 Sep 2013 - 2:17 PM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 3:06 PM

Early in 2008, some months before what became a global economic crisis began in earnest, I had a conversation with a lawyer and Harvard graduate. I mention that he was (and probably still is) a Harvard graduate because our conversation turned to higher education, specifically the American idea of what it means, and what it takes, to get a good one. I had heard that students at the University of Toronto, my alma mater, were out protesting a tuition hike that appeared relatively minor but was indicative of a larger problem: fees rising at four times the rate of inflation.

I remember such protests well; they are a staple of Toronto campus life. And I was expressing to my Harvard lawyer my surprise and persistent confusion, since moving to the United States, that a country known for its righteous independence should be so lacking in protest spirit. “I don't understand,” I told him, “why these kids are paying between US$30- $40,000 for a single year of schooling. I can't understand why they're not out rioting in the streets.” He was shocked when I told him that I paid less than a tenth of that amount for U of T tuition. Despite having benefited from what Harvard surely markets as the best education in the world, he had reached his thirties still insulated from the possibility that the rest of us might do things quite differently.

At Berkeley, Frederick Wiseman's four-hour study of that American institution, presents a university uniquely positioned between private and public systems and ideologies. Outgoing Berkeley chancellor (and former University of Toronto president) Robert Birgeneau, who allowed Wiseman to shoot on campus for 12 weeks, is the documentary's only consistent presence. Though Berkeley was modelled on private schools like Harvard and Yale, it was intended as a public institution, accessible to all. Early on, during one of the many meetings, sessions, classes, and seminars Wiseman audits, Birgeneau makes the school's predicament clear: though once state funding comprised 40 percent of their operating budget, that number is now down to 16. The government is “disinvesting” in education, and schools are passing cost deficits on to students. The average American university graduate leaves school owing almost US$30,000 in student loans, loans that are now the largest source of debt in the country.

Berkeley was supposed to be a way out of all that. In At Berkeley, Wiseman shows us a faculty, administrative staff, and student body operating at a high level, whether they are reading poetry, debating class politics, building robotic crutches for paraplegics, stuffing birds, or arguing about the budget. At times it can all bore you silly, though I suspect that was part of Wiseman's point. He uses no identifying titles or structure, and single scenes (sometimes single shots) persist for upwards of ten minutes. Here an earnest undergraduate and there a prickly systems analyst gasses on and on, repeating his or her rather dubious point five or six times over. Just when your dull expression matches that of the other faces in the room, a welcome dissenting voice speaks up, or Wiseman cuts away to a tableau of concrete being poured, or a janitor pushing dirt around, or an all-girl a cappella group, or a marching band blasting onto a football field. It's all part of the same picture.

True to this methodical, slightly perverse structure, At Berkeley builds to an anti-climax. Students organise a protest, but its traction is limited, in part because the protest lacks strategy, in part because it lacks spirit. The students appear divided between specific demands and a grander, more general sense of outrage. In his genteel way, Birgeneau mocks the students, privately, indicating how poorly their ranting and random demands compare to the purpose and passion of sixties and seventies campus protests.

He does so, of course, without acknowledging his generation's complicity in the creation of a generation of students boggled by late-capitalism, more suited, perhaps, to protest theatre than meaningful action. It's not because the students don't care, or that they don't know something has gone terribly, systemically wrong. And it's not because Birgeneau, depicted as a well-meaning plutocrat, wouldn't in fact welcome a formidable challenge. At Berkeley is too admiring of its subject to suggest otherwise. Yet in surveying the landscape of “one of the world's most powerful knowledge-wielding institutions,” Wiseman finds an outline of those obvious and more elusive forces threatening to pull it under.