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: