Master documentarian studies 21st-century college life

In his close looks at how systems function, the esteemed documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman favors the fly-on-the-wall style. Some of those systems are as large as Madison Square Garden or the Paris Opera ballet, some as small as a homely boxing gym in Austin, Texas.

Given his free-ranging curiosity about subject matter, it’s surprising it took Wiseman this long — “At Berkeley” is his 42nd film — to come to a major U.S. university. But it turns out his timing was very, very good.

The film was shot in 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley, in the aftermath of the financial collapse; the school now gets a fraction of its former funding from the state.

Wiseman finds administrators scrambling to make ends meet and students searching for ways of voicing their fury about rising tuition at a once-free public university.

It will take Wiseman just over four hours of running time to burrow through the layers of life of Cal, and the length allows him to challenge your expectations of what a 21st-century college must be like.

A long early classroom sequence at first appears to embody the kind of liberal hand-wringing that is assumed to go on in progressive schools (the subject at this moment is race in America). But watch the sequence go on, and see how forthrightly the students stake out their own nuanced positions while listening to others give theirs.

Although we graze through classrooms and hear about Thoreau and physics, the real meat of “At Berkeley” is in the administrative conference rooms, where the overall impression is of decent, occasionally exasperating people actually trying to thrash their way to good decisions.

This is mostly true even when, in the second half of the film, the “story” is dominated by a student protest, during which school officials try to devise proper responses and students try to figure out what it is exactly they are protesting about.

Wiseman’s hands-off style is ideal for letting us think what we want about all this, but the cumulative effect of “At Berkeley” is a ringing appreciation of discourse itself.

Yes, the bureaucratic terminology and careful back-and-forthing of department meetings must be wearisome at times, but the movie is insightful in its depiction of the value of people sitting together in rooms and talking with each other. Which sounds a lot like one of the founding ideas of a university.

“At Berkeley” (3 stars)

A four-hour look at the various operations at the University of California, Berkeley, done in documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s usual fly-on-the-wall style. The glimpses into administration meetings and classroom sessions are engrossing, and give insight into budget crises and student discontent.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for language.

Showing: Northwest Film Forum.

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