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'At Berkeley' opens the door to a kaleidoscopic learning lab

'At Berkeley' is a documentary which focuses on the nature of publicly funded education in the modern era.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / November 8, 2013

Students take in a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, one of America’s most prestigious public colleges.

Zipporah Films

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In the fall of 2010, at a time of great debate, still ongoing, over tuition hikes and budget cuts, the great documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman and his cinematographer John Davey took their cameras to the University of California, Berkeley. The result, “At Berkeley,” is glorious – a four-hour meditation on the nature of education, especially publicly funded education, in the modern era.

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In a larger sense, it’s about the opposition of idealism and hard reality at a time when the price of a college education, especially for the middle class, has become onerous. (The wealthy can afford it and the poor have subsidies, though not enough.) Since this is, after all, Berkeley, it’s not long into the movie before the question of privilege rears up. A female African-American student taking part in a sociology class discussion derides the woe-is-me elitism of middle-class whites concerned about poverty only when it hits home.

This woman, whose background was not privileged, is not exactly wrong to feel the way she does, but Wiseman is careful, as always, to avoid editorializing. One of the constants running through the film is that education, higher or lower, should not be a luxury for anybody.

Perhaps the most prestigious public university in America, Berkeley, at one time, offered free tuition to its students. Those days are long gone, although an extended student demonstration, complete with the requisite takeover of the campus library, has free tuition as one of its many demands. This is not, though many of the campus exhorters would wish it otherwise, the 1960s free-speech-movement era. Wiseman shows us the library occupiers as they attempt to revive the spirit of radical icons past, such as Mario Savio, but there’s a slight tinniness to the harangues. The occupiers, like that black student in the sociology class, are not wrong to feel the way they do, but in a recessionary era, calling for free tuition is a pie-in-the-sky gesture that inevitably ends up going nowhere. To the befuddled amazement of the administrators, including Berkeley’s chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, the sit-in rapidly disbands without incident.

A poignant undercurrent to the film is that not a few of the faculty and administrators at Berkeley came of age in the era of student radicalism and now find themselves, at least tactically, on the other side. Among his colleagues, Birgeneau speaks with some disdain of the demonstrators’ laundry list of grievances. The social movements that galvanized Birgeneau as a young man – the Vietnam War protests and civil rights marches – furnished a focus he doesn’t recognize in his present-day counterparts.

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