Legendary Documentarian Frederick Wiseman Shows Us How Berkeley Works

In the four-hour At Berkeley, Frederick Wiseman stumbles upon what may be the most financially distressed body he has seen in 50 years of documenting American institutions.

Justin Sullivan

Fred Wiseman, the godfather of documentary filmmaking, has turned his attention to the public university system and fears he may have stumbled upon the most financially distressed body he has encountered in 50 years of documenting American institutions.

In At Berkeley, a four-hour examination of the University of California campus, 83-year-old Wiseman shines a light on the agonizing financial strain placed on the students, teachers, and the entire organization, which is battling to preserve its “public education” status.

If there’s a star of the film, it is Robert Birgeneau, the university’s chancellor who retired earlier this year. His sense of humor lights up scene after scene as he demonstrates a quiet determination to uphold Berkeley’s reputation and philosophy.

Two of the young students, none of whom are named, come to represent the difficulty of being able to pay for a first-class education in the current economic climate. One middle-class girl is reduced to tears as she describes the financial pressure being piled on her parents. In another stunning scene, an African-American student takes on her entire class for their sense of self-pity—no one cared when it was just minority students who were too poor to go to a good school she tells them.

Wiseman sat down with The Daily Beast to discuss a half-century of filmmaking and the scale of the problems he had witnessed at Berkeley.

Was the financial situation worse than you thought?

It was worse when I got there. It’s even worse now. They were getting 60 percent of their budget from the state, they are getting 9 now. Berkeley’s public character is under threat, it’s very important to the university that it maintain its public character because it means something ideologically. It means a diverse student body, lots of people on scholarships, a meritocracy, recruiting faculty who believe in public education.

Is it overdramatic to say the entire public education system is under threat?

I don’t think it’s overdramatic. Not only are the budgets being cut but they are being asked to apply a cost benefit analysis so if there are only six people taking Renaissance history, why teach Renaissance history? That kind of thinking is extremely dangerous because it puts the humanities under siege. There are political implications because if each generation is not educated about the values of the Enlightenment, or what the Founders had in mind in the Federalist Papers, the ideological roots at the foundation of this country, then we become a nation of technocrats.

There’s a chance this film becomes an elegy?

I hope this is not an elegy in the sense that what it represents is not lost but it could become an elegy.

What were you thinking when that African-American girl challenges her class while you are shooting?

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It’s an amazing speech. You’re thinking: you must have lead a clean and moral life and God’s on your side. Because it’s all luck. I mean you have to recognize that you have a moment like that—but you couldn’t script it.

As the girl said the crisis has affected the middle-class and the chancellor at Berkeley is very concerned about helping middle class students. It’s absolutely amazing to think that a family with an income of $100,000 to $150,000 a year has to have financial help to put their kids through college. 

For out-of-staters tuition at Berkeley is over $40,000 so one of the ways the administration is dealing with the crisis is by taking more out-of-staters who can pay. But they do it with a twist—they take a third of the money and use that for scholarships so that the number of scholarships has not fallen. I think they have more Pell Grant students than the Ivy League and Stanford combined. By very carefully financial planning they have maintained the number of scholarships which represents an ideological point of view about helping intelligent low-income students get a good education. And now they’re looking at ways to help middle-class students like that girl who cried.

Do you go into shooting a film like this thinking I have no idea what this will be?

Exactly. In the case of Berkeley I had been there once before to give a talk but I knew nothing about the administration. I think I got permission amidst of a major financial crisis because the chancellor thought a fair movie about Berkeley might help the public understand what they were trying to do there. So he took a risk.

I thought the administration were a group of very intelligent hard-working people who were trying really hard to keep it going and maintain the standards. There are some people who think the only subject for a documentary is to expose an evil and I’m certainly not against that, but I think it’s just as important to show honorable and intelligent people trying hard and succeeding at their work as it is to show malign and corrupt people.

This series of films about institutions—it must be the longest franchise going?

Well, it started with Titicut Follies [about a mental health institution for criminals] which came out in 1967. I must be up to around 90 hours by now. In terms of subject matter there’s an almost infinite number of options, I mean this is my 40th or 41st film, I can’t remember, but if I could live ‘til 200 I wouldn’t run out of subjects.

Don’t you just want to retire?

I’ve seen so many people stop working and die. I have so much energy—and I love editing. I can’t… I mean what would I do if I retired? I don’t find it a strain, so it’s not as if I’m anguished. I look forward to getting up and going to the editing suite.

How big is your film crew?

It’s three of us. I direct and do the sound—holding the mic—and I work with a cameraman, and I have an assistant. It’s a very nice way to make a movie actually. I was on the set of Tootsie many years ago and there were 225 people shooting a scene with two people talking to each other.

Have technological improvements over the decades made it easier?

It’s the same as it ever was. Digital is almost as good as film but not quite, I’ve now made three movies in HD and I don’t particularly like editing digitally. At the risk of sounding pretentious there was something artisanal about handling the film, which I liked. I don’t find that it takes any less time to edit digitally—because editing is thinking about the material. You can get access to the material faster using the Avid system but getting access faster is not necessarily better because you need time to think. The issue is what are you going to do with it? When are you going to make the cut? There’s no quality reward for speed.

I can’t recall another TV or movie director ever using such generous, long cuts.

It’s very important to me to be fair, don’t ask me what it means because it’s subjective. That girl who asks why she should care—she’s very eloquent but she goes on—but I felt that I had to cut the scene in such a way that I allow their point of view to be fairly represented.

How do you pick the next institution—are you trying to help them?

I don’t do it to help the institution, I do it because I like making movies. When I started, I naively thought there was some connection between documentary filmmaking and social change but I was quickly disabused of that notion by my experience. To be blunt about it: the real reason I do it is because I like it.

Institutions are a pretext to have a look at a wide variety of human behavior. For example High School was a movie about how you transfer values from one generation to another. There was a dean of discipline who tells a student who was late for gym or something that the way to be a man is to follow orders, and take you punishment; well that isn’t necessarily everyone’s values. I would have thought that one of the goals of education was to be taught to think critically.

You love directing. Who are your favorite directors?

I like Scorsese—my favorite directors are really people in the past. I like Buster Keaton and I like the Marx Brothers. I don’t want to generalize about modern directors but I find the kind of themes that were dealt with early on in the movies were much more appealing to me than the trendy themes. I think people like [Robert] Bresson and [Ingmar] Bergman tackled big themes of human nature.

Do your films make money?

No one film makes money but because I end up owning them, the ancillary rights produce some income. I make a living at it. But you can make more money talking about movies than making movies. There’s quite a good lecture circuit that I do some of but not too much, because you can go on automatic pilot. I do it four, five times a year and I get very well paid for it.

Do you wish you worked with the big studios?

The studios are totally concerned with money. And I don’t mean that… It’s a business! It varies but I spend between $400,000 and $500,000 making a film, if I raise all the funds [mostly from public television and grants]. I don’t take private investment, because it’s not an investment. I don’t know what the average cost of a Hollywood movie is but I could make one of these movies for what they spend for lunch.