American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Frederick Wiseman’s "At Berkeley" demands a certain amount of patience in its audience because all this extraordinary documentary offers during its 4-hour running time is a look around the University of California, Berkeley. We are just supposed to sit and watch what the camera observes, and it does not even have any helpful narration or title cards to tell us how we should view its scenes.
I would guess that some of you are already reluctant to watch this documentary given that description, but, if you are ready to give it a try and go along with its slow but steady rhythm, there are many things to intrigue or enlighten you in this vast, vivid portrayal of one of the leading public universities in the U.S. We see administrators going through meetings and discussions. We watch students going through lectures and lab works. We also witness other small and big things within the campus. And we come to reflect on their functions in the system as days go by as usual for everyone on the campus.
Maybe because I am a guy who has spent more than 14 years at the campus of KAIST (Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), the scenes which attracted my attention most are the ones involving students. In the case of one scene featuring a professor conducting an open discussion with her students, their discussion on the recent increasing poverty in the American middle class sparkles with spontaneity and intelligence. The students openly express their thoughts in front of others while the camera stays close to them as if it were one of the participants in the classroom, and our attention is gradually drawn to their passionate discussion.
The lecture scenes remind me a lot of several professors at KAIST who were really ready to impart their passion and knowledge to me and others (but I and others were a lot more passive than UC Berkeley students, unfortunately). At one point, we see a prominent biologist giving a lecture on cancer genes, and her scene took me back to the fond memories of several special lectures I had to attend during my graduate years. The lecturers used to lighten up the mood with a few funny pictures to tickle us, and the biologist in the film also got a good chuckle from me at the end of her scene. There is also a scene showing a lecture given by Robert Reich, a Berkeley professor who recently appeared in the acclaimed documentary "Inequality for All" (2013), and he is as engaging to watch as he was in that informative documentary. In the middle of his lecture, Reich humorously describes how inefficient his faculty meeting is, and the audiences around me laughed along with his students on the screen.
And then there are the moments of ongoing academic research on the campus. We get an interesting sight of engineering graduates developing a walker device for paraplegics, and then we listen to their discussion with the adviser professor and a paraplegic volunteer who willingly gives enthusiastic graduates some helpful information for their project. As a biology major, I instantly smiled to myself when a biology lab appeared; the conversation between a graduate and her adviser professor on the student’s upcoming paper during that scene is not so far from what has been exchanged between me and my long-suffering adviser professor for many years.
Wiseman’s camera continues to observe other things. We look at several notable buildings in the campus, and we sometimes hear the clock tower chiming. A singing group performs in front of a gathering crowd during one afternoon and there is a noisy night event at the square, and then we get a very funny musical performance which throws a satirical jab at our current Facebook era.
As being true to its open-minded spirit, the UC Berkeley has opened its gates to various students, and we encounter some of them. During a small private meeting, students of different racial types talk frankly about how they were perceived by others based on race. There is a scene showing a number of war veteran students at their group meeting, and they mainly talk about their initial experience at the campus. I once heard some student saying that studying was the easiest thing in his life, but these veterans has a different opinion; they think preparing for exams is harder than being in combat (they have a good point, by the way).
The documentary also looks closely at campus adminstration. The situation has been especially difficult for the American public education system mainly due to the recent economic depression, and the UC Berkeley is no exception; they must deal with the reduced support from the government, among other matters. We see these people frequently discussing how they should improve their administrative system for more efficiency, and what direction their university should take for the future. With apparent care and dedication, they openly talk and discuss with each other a lot in front of the camera, and I was particularly impressed by a small moment in which one of them gives others a familiar but insightful explanation as to why it is always hard for them to bring changes into their bureaucratic system.
One of the current problems at UC Berkeley is the tuition fee, which has been consistently increased since the 1960s, and the students are not silent about that problem at all. We see them marching down the campus roads during their protest, and they later occupy the campus library while demanding the response from the campus administration. Even at this point, the documentary maintains its calm, objective position while going back and forth between students and administration people; students keep themselves steady inside boundaries, and administration people sensibly handle the situation while being cautious of any possible danger which might happen during the protest.
Watching all of these moments and many other things in the documentary, we are slowly absorbed into the mood of the campus. We sometimes come across the same spots or same people again, and they become more familiar to us as time goes by. Trivial things like a janitor sweeping dirt from one stair feels as significant as, say, a big football game at the campus stadium, and we cannot help but focus on the crumbs of dirt falling from the stair to the basement floor.
Frederick Wiseman, an 84-year-old director who has been active since his debut work "Titicut Follies" (1967), previously made "Crazy Horse" (2011), an engaging documentary about the famous strip show club in Paris. Although I was not very familiar with Wiseman’s other works when I watched it in early 2012, I enjoyed it for its wonderful presentation of those fantastic nude performances in the club, and I also admired Wiseman’s dry, objective approach in the film. He steps back, maintaining distance from his subject, but he also effortlessly lets us observe and appreciate for ourselves what is shown through his austere approach.
Like "Crazy Horse," "At Berkeley" holds a distant attitude to its subject, but this reticent work vividly presents its subject by observing its many different parts, and its 4-hour running time is a wide canvas. Although the movie looks like a bunch of scenes randomly captured from the campus at first, the sense of passing time emerges as we follow the gaze of Wiseman’s camera, giving the piece a subtle narrative flow. During one certain lecture scene, I somehow began to sense that the film was approaching its ending, and then, to my satisfaction, it did arrive at the ending not long after that.
While watching the film at the Jeonju International Film Festival, I saw many audiences around me walking out in the middle of the screening, and I even heard someone snoring behind my back. That was an understandable reaction considering its slow pace and long running time, but this is one of those films which can be you rewarding experience if you are well aware of what exactly you will get from it. I surely felt my patience decreased at times, but my eyes were always fixed on the screen, and my mind was wholly involved with what was observed through Wiseman’s camera. It still feels long to me in spite of that, but, as Roger used to say, no good film is too long.
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