MIFF 2014 Critics Campus review: At Berkeley

Frederick Wiseman's four-hour documentary of life at America's flagship public university is a vital record of the social and political moment in America.

Screens August 3, 9

Images from Frederick Wiseman's documentary <i>At Berkeley</i>.
Images from Frederick Wiseman's documentary At Berkeley

A student breaks down after discussing her college fees. Her Financial Aid Officer’s response? “Think more creatively about your living arrangements.” So goes one of hundreds of microcosmic interactions in Frederick Wiseman’s four-hour documentary At Berkeley, a vital record of the contemporary social and political moment in America. Filming at the flagship campus of the flagship public university in America, Wiseman’s deliberately broad approach means everything from astrophysics classes to football matches is spotlighted. He frequently returns to a series of meetings of Berkeley’s management, usually chaired by Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, the kind of man who repackages his experience as a 1960s child of the counterculture into a series of “organisational leadership tips” that he regularly shares with colleagues. Tellingly, in one scene Birgeneau dismisses the student protests plaguing his regime as unfocused, lazy and entitled. In another vignette, a student makes an identical criticism of the protestors. It is a disturbingly insightful moment in a portrait of both a university and an ideal that just might be in trouble.