College is an interesting time and place for those who have the chance to attend any given school. Often times a period in one’s life of not only self-discovery, but true intellectual enlightenment, the education system throughout the decades has become a relatively broken institution, relying on public funding as much as it does people who are willing to go into five or six digits of financial debt. East Coast to West, the college experience is both universal and yet, from person to person, completely esoteric and singular.
However, the sheer human hunger for learning spans coasts, spans countries. In his latest documentary, non-fiction filmmaking legend (dare I say deity) Frederick Wiseman turns his camera onto the daily happenings of university life at one of this nation’s most iconic and prestigious school’s The University Of California at Berkeley. Entitled, of course, At Berkeley, Wiseman’s latest is a four-hour-long epic of a documentary, but also happens to be one of, if not the very best documentary we’ve seen so far in 2013.
Yes, the runtime is very much an ominous presence when staring down this masterful look at today’s educational experience and system, but let that fear fall to the side, as this is one of the most beautifully paced pictures seen in quite some time. Throughout his career, Wiseman has had a deep interest in the idea of digging deep into the realm of real, tactile, institutions. Be it in a film like Titicut Follies all the way up to this new masterpiece, Wiseman digs deep into not only what makes the central institution tick, but what universal truths are inherent within the said institution.
Take Berkeley for example. One of the world’s truly legendary public universities, Berkeley is not only full of breathtaking ideas coming from professors and students alike, but is feeling the same ever present financial issues that have become clouds hovering over much of this very nation. At its very best, At Berkeley is an amorphous masterpiece of a documentary. At one moment, the film allows the viewer shocking access to the classrooms of Berkeley, often simply finding Wiseman pointing his camera and shooting various lectures or discussions. However, the film then turns on a dime, positing this formerly free public university as a definitive example of a modern education system that is not only failing this nation, but leaving its youth in insurmountable debt. With its boundless energy, both aesthetically and ultimately found within the men and women the film follows, and their equally boundless interest in learning about and changing the world around them, this is a breathtaking meditation on the pure and unquenchable human thirst to learn and evolve.
Aesthetically, the film may be muted but it’s ultimately as thrilling a documentary as you’re bound to see all year. Never wavering, Wiseman’s camera is ever present and lingers on any and every conversation it catches. Be it the final “act” where the school’s brewing controversy surrounding its rising costs for students takes hold or the first block of the film which looks entirely at conversations between students and teachers, the film is ostensibly a filmed series of lectures, and it is all the better for it. Giving the viewer intense access to the interior of Cal-Berkeley, the film is a real testament to not only the power of film to enrapture a viewer, but also to the human spirit and its constant need for intellectual growth. With his latest masterpiece, Frederick Wiseman has crafted a film that may seem intimidating and unwieldy, but is as intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant as anything we’ve seen come across the screen in a very, very long time. He’s given this world a true gift of a film.
Long live Frederick Wiseman.