Frederick Wiseman talks about his epic new documentary 'At Berkeley'

There are documentarians and then there are documentarians. Frederick Wiseman has spent almost half a century painstakingly detailing institutions, the people who work for them, and those who depend on them in films such as 1967’s Titicut Follies, which portrayed conditions at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Mass., and 1975’s Welfare, about the travails of welfare workers and their clients.

Wiseman’s new movie is the four-hour At Berkeley, an epic investigation of life at the famed university. The film is screening today at New York’s IFC Center and opens at L.A’s Laemmle Music Hall tomorrow.

Wiseman talks about At Berkeley below.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to make a film about Berkeley?
FREDERICK WISEMAN:
I have been doing this series on institutions and I hadn’t done a university. So I wanted to do a university and I wanted to do a public university. And Berkeley is one of the great public universities of the world. So I wrote a letter to the chancellor and, much to my amazement, he said “Okay.”

Why do you say “much to my amazement”?
Well, because I don’t think anybody has ever had access to Berkely in this way before. I don’t know that anyone has ever had access to an American university in the manner of which they gave me permission. Because they gave me complete permission. With the exception of tenure meetings, I could go wherever I wanted.

You were certainly allowed to film at meetings where people discussed the univeristy’s finances. Were you surprised by that?
I was pleased by that. Soon after I got there, I began to realize the depth of the economic crisis they were in. So I was pleased that they allowed me into the meetings where they were figuring out how to deal with it.

How much did you know about the university beforehand?
Very little. I had been there once a few years before to show some movies but the only Berkeley that I knew was the mythic Berkeley.

It’s interesting, because the university is for the most part depicted in the film as a relatively calm, well-ordered institution. Which obviously is at odds with the myth of it being a hotbed of student foment.
Well, that’s it. It made me speculate after I’d been at Berkeley for 12 weeks what daily life at the campus was like in the ‘60s. I’m sure it was more active than it is now. But even in the ‘60s there were probably 25-30,000 students there and I don’t know what percentage of them participated in the student protest activities. My guess is, it wasn’t a high percentage.

Was there anything which really surprise you about the university?
I was quite taken by the intelligence and sensitivity and the competence with which the chancellor and his administration were trying to deal with a very severe economic crisis. The chancellor says in the movie that the percentage of funds coming from the state has been cut from over 50% to 16% when I made the movie. So it’s a public university but it gets most of its money from non-public sources. And the fact that they had maintained a high level of scholarships for low-income students and that they were trying to figure out ways to help middle-income students whose family hard been severely affected by the economic crisis—I thought that was impressive. They struck me as a group of people who cared and were responsible and were applying their intelligence to solving the serious problems that were involved in maintaining Berkeley as a great university.

How did what you saw at Berkeley compare to your own college experience?
I went to a very small college in western Massachusetts. It had 800 students. And I went to college in 1947. So it’s apples and oranges, as the cliché goes. The college I went to was a small liberal arts college where the whole social life was determined by fraternities. The fraternities were wildly anti-Semitic. I was an innocent 17-year-old leaving home for the first time—not a very nice atmosphere to participate in. And Berkeley struck me as an open university where all races are represented, all ethnic groups are represented. Berkeley is the face of contemporary America. Maybe the place I went to college was the face of contemporary America in 1947. It sure isn’t now.

Why did you feel the film needed to be 4 hours long?
Because that’s the way it felt. I didn’t set out to make a movie of any particular length, that’s the way it came out. Berkeley is an extremely complicated place and even at four hours it’s difficult to assess the complexity of what goes on there.

Besides At Berkeley, what other film of yours would you recommend a Wiseman virgin to watch?
[Laughs uproariously] Welfare.

Why?
It’s a film that I’m fond of, that’s all. Not that I don’t like them all, because I do, strangely enough. It’s hard to say because the subjects are so diverse. But that’s the answer to your question.

We live at a time when seemingly everyone can make a documentary and it sometimes seems that everybody is. Is this a good time for documentaries?
The answer to your question is that I rarely go to the movies so I don’t know what’s being done. I think it’s quite true that everyone thinks he can make a documentary. But there’s not always a recognition that there’s an enormous amount of work involved. I mean, it took me 14 months to edit At Berkeley. I had 250 hours of rushes. I used one-sixtieth of the material.

You can check out the At Berkeley trailer below.


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