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Interview with Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman on Berkeley as a Metaphor

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

Frederick Wiseman is a critically acclaimed filmmaker, documentarian and theatre director, who has recently directed "At Berkeley", a four-hour documentary feature on UC Berkeley. In May 2014, we sat with Fred for the French theatrical release of his film in Paris. Through his award-winning career, Fred has focused on the relationship between the individual and institutions (public or private). In this interview, Fred shares his thoughts on the making of "At Berkeley", the editing process and the nexus between higher education and democracy.

We are in the editing room of your documentary feature At Berkeley, located next to your production company Ideale Audience in Paris. Did you edit all your films here?

I edited FOUR documentaries in this room-’La Danse -Le Ballet De L'opera De Paris’, ‘Crazy Horse’, ‘At Berkeley’ and ‘National Gallery’.

Why did you pick UC Berkeley as the subject of your film? I picked Berkeley because it is the best public university in the world.

Why the title At Berkeley?

I called it ‘At Berkeley’ rather than ‘Berkeley’ or ‘University’ because I wanted to suggest that it wasn’t everything about Berkeley. Berkeley is enormous: 35,000 students, 3500 Faculty and 5000 staff. It is a medium-size city. I didn’t want in any way to suggest that the movie covered all aspects of life at Berkeley.

"Certainly the level of teaching at Berkeley is of the highest quality"

Many sections of the film feature UC Berkeley boardroom meetings. Why is that? As far as I knew, there never had been a movie about the administration of an American university. The movie is not solely on the administration, although there is certainly an emphasis on that since the administration is central to the function of the university.

"The creation of illusion depends on an analysis of the behavior of the participants"

What is the relationship between the administration and the students?

I thought that the administration made a serious effort to keep in touch with the students. There are regularly scheduled meetings between students and administrators at various levels of the administration. My impression was that the administration was quite open to discussing things with the students and discovering the students’ point of view.

You put your camera inside the classroom. How did you pick which courses to film? There are some 3500 courses at Berkeley. I tried to give a suggestion of the range and depth of the courses offered but it is only a suggestion, most departments and graduate schools are not included in the film.

You used to teach law at Boston U. Did you see any differences with the teaching at Berkeley ? Well its was a long time ago, 50 years. I am no expert in these matters. Certainly the level of teaching at Berkeley is of the highest quality.

The original interview was first published in Les Gens de Berkeley #6 - Summer issue (July 2014).

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