At Berkeley: Frederick Wiseman on Why He Went Back to School

Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman.

Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman.

Though this would likely make him uncomfortable, Frederick Wiseman is an American treasure. His documentaries about institutions [see our previous post collecting clips from several of these] have captured people in everyday activities that unpretentiously get at a greater truth. Wrote Barry Grant in the introduction to the book Five Films by Frederick Wiseman, “Just as Wiseman has captured the way Americans look, so he captures the authentic talk of Americans, the rhythms of real speech that are so essential to observational cinema.” His latest film, the epic yet intimate documentary At Berkeley, which premieres tonight January 13 on PBS [check local listings] has reminded critics worldwide of his mastery and relevance all over again.

In anticipation of the film’s PBS premiere, Wiseman informally answered a few questions in brief from his current home base in Paris, France.  In addition, he also spoke to us in a video interview [see below] about why he wanted to do a film about “the extraordinarily complicated place” that is the University of California, Berkeley, as well as about the unprecedented access he was given, and why showing it on public television is so important.

The Cal Bears, in scene from At Berkeley

The Cal Bears, in scene from At Berkeley

IL: How did you land on the Berkeley campus as place to film, as many other public universities could have worked?

FW: I chose Berkeley because it is the best public university in the world.

What was your own college experience like at Yale and Williams? Did any of those experiences connect with what you witnessed on the modern campus of UC Berkeley?

Mostly, I wish I had gone to Berkeley.

In many standard documentaries when someone is first speaking a title will identify who that person is, but in your films we’re sort of left to our own devices to figure out context, who the speakers are. What is the thought process on not labeling or introducing, instead just jumping into the scene, to the discussion, so we focus purely on what’s being said without context?

The context is provided by what occurs in the sequence. If I started to identify the participants with subtitles the images on the film would be blocked or not recognizable.

Who did you look to as filmmaking role models when you were first starting out?

Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers.

I know you’ve said you don’t at all like using the term “cinema verite,” but was wondering if you could explain why that overused (including by me) term makes you uncomfortable. 

“Cinema verite” is a pompous, pretentious French term. The idea that a film could be a representation of the “truth” is a wonderfully comic idea. The originators of the term, alas, did not see the comedy. A film at best can only be one person’s view of a limited series of events.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, teaches a class in scene from At Berkeley.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, teaches a class in scene from Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley.

As a filmmaker how do you make yourself unobtrusive physically, the camera nearly invisible, so the subjects continue on as they would unabated? I know you have a very small crew (just you and two others?)

I think people are distracted by my big ears.

Cinema technology has changed radically over the years, but has that changed the way you approach a film? Is it a trade-off, using digital?

I prefer that my films are shot and edited on film. That is no longer possible. The money is no longer available to shoot film and the good 16mm labs have closed.

Have you recently seen any other documentary films by other filmmakers that impressed you?

I rarely go to the movies.

See also a lengthier interview Wiseman did for Independent Lens a few years ago: “Ask Fred.”

Wiseman speaks to IL about his film At Berkeley:

About Craig Phillips

ITVS/Independent Lens Interactive Editor and film nerd, based in San Francisco.
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  • robearl

    Like so many other wiseman documentaries it was mesmerizing and I found myself watching for hours as it slowly unfolded. Then, just as it reached the point where the administration was preparing to respond to the student protest, the broadcast was interrupted … and replaced by a junior roller derby from God knows where!! Seriously. I played with my remote to no avail for a few minutes but the folks on skates had clearly displaced At Berkeley. I suppose the night crew at Thirteen had either gone to sleep or had turned rogue and slipped the roller derby in for the last part of the documentary … just to see if anyone was still watching. After a few minutes I decided to turn in since it was about 2 am. Bummer. Although I have a hunch the students didn’t get the “free education for everyone” they were seeking.

  • mrtplanetearth

    I used to live in the area around University of California – Berkeley. I am a transplanted Ohioan and then resided in the Alameda County and the Berkeley area in the late 1980s. It was very enlightening to see Mr. Wiseman’s documentary on PBS and I congratulate public broadcasting for presenting a four hour documentary. Some of the outside shots of the campus brought back memories of when I was in the area and did visit some of the halls and institutions. I have one suggestion and what I hope will be looked upon as a constructive criticism. The use of chyron-an electronically generated caption superimposed on a television or movie screen, I have posted the definition of what this term is for any other readers that would be unaware of what this use is and how it would have in my viewpoint enhanced the film/video. Mr. Wiseman did go into quite a bit of detail as to the inner workings of the University hierarchy and classroom teaching aspects. It did bring back for me the didactic portions of my academic experiences at least the positive ones where good teaching was conveyed in classes that I enjoyed. But what I found to be longing in watching the administrative, executive and educational displays and interactions in the film/video was you had no true understanding as to who was speaking and what their role was at the University. Some of the class discussions going on your very informative and brought up certain points that were ones I would have liked to have engaged in. But how would anyone be able to determine which class or the class description it truly was because there was no way to determine who or what it was. I did recognize Robert Reich the former Clinton administration cabinet secretary of labor. At least he did have name tags for the students in his classroom. My point is I would’ve enjoyed being able to see who it was that was speaking and at least related to what their position was within University. Is it too late to go back and place captions and use the Chyron for a re-edit. Perhaps you can do like Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse now redux?? He added in 49 min. to a very long film if you are film is 247 min. add-in captions I will watch it again. I would like to have an answer to this. If it was a question as to if you listed the personnel was at UC Berkeley would you have to credit them and then have introduced into the screen actors Guild? Another factor in does show how the University of California educational system is now less dependent on funding system with in the state operation budget. This is one of the discussions at the early parts of the film with the faculty/administrative group that point in this fact out. It also shows that with less state involvement there is more corporate and research dollars that come into institutions of higher learning and their goals and directives come to the forefront much more strongly. Quest for knowledge should be the goal of all societies especially the American society which is truly diverse but has not embraced the diversity as fully as it should we are still struggling to try to make this a reality. This film is one aspect even though it is four hours long of just one institution of higher learning. Even though the chancellor of the University of California system is based at Berkeley there are multiple institutions within the UC hierarchy and Berkeley is one of many even within their own academic group. Education for all and as much education as possible. Learning never stops, for this is the well of knowledge drink deep of it for a little learning is a dangerous thing.

  • Independent Lens

    This was such a thoughtful comment we approved it even though it seems intended for a different film discussion. Can you let us know which film you were thinking about here? Thanks so much!