The old col­lege try

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM - TARA BRADY


Di­rected by Fred­er­ick Wise­man Club, IFI, Dublin, 244 min You don’t need a critic to tell you that Fred­er­ick Wise­man’s four-hour study of how the 2010 bud­get cri­sis im­pacted upon the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley is not for ev­ery­one.

For more than 40 years, the great doc­u­men­tar­ian has de­fined his medium and mi­lieu with painstak­ing en­quiries into the struc­ture, na­ture and psy­chol­ogy of or­gan­i­sa­tion. A sci­en­tific film-maker, Wise­man is an in­sti­tu­tion who is fas­ci­nated by in­sti­tu­tions. And so he shoots schools, hos­pi­tals and prisons for months (and some­times years) at a time. He whit­tles away at hun­dreds of hours of footage un­til a fea­si­ble fea­ture film emerges.

In the post-re­al­ity-TV era, his work re­minds us that fly-on-the-wall film-mak­ing is worth­less if your sub­jects are mug­ging at the cam­era. There is no ev­i­dence of the Hawthorne Ef­fect in Wise­man pic­tures; the di­rec­tor never uses a frame un­til his sub­jects have for­got­ten that the cam­era is there.

His method­ol­ogy hasn’t changed since Titi­cut Fol­lies, his 1967 film about the treat­ment of in­mates at a Mas­sachusetts fa­cil­ity and an ac­knowl­edged in­flu­ence on Martin Scors­ese’s Shut­ter Is­land and Paul Thomas An­der­son’s The Master.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, At Berke­ley is char­ac­terised by monas­tic de­tach­ment and the mun­dane. Many meet­ings are ob­served from the side­lines as aca­demics, stu­dents and staff dis­cuss the fu­ture of a univer­sity that was con­ceived as Ivy League out­side the Ivy League. Berke­ley was founded on an ideal that peo­ple should be able to study even if they weren’t part of the elite. But bud­get cuts prompt a cri­sis and not a lit­tle soul search­ing. Who pays for ed­u­ca­tion? Who should pay for ed­u­ca­tion? And why?

Away from the bot­tom line, the viewer glimpses the weird for­mal­ity of soror­ity cul­ture and over­hears a mess of in­trigu­ing ideas: “Amer­ica is founded on ex­ploita­tion”. Or “Poverty wasn’t just democra­tised be­cause An­gelina Jolie and Bono went to Africa”.

Fans of the Wise­man oeu­vre have lit­tle to fear from any eco­nomic crunch: at 244 min­utes, viewer gets plenty of bang for their bucks. Well, not bang ex­actly. But an im­pec­ca­bly worked the­sis awaits.

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