Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is no stranger to college campuses.
Wiseman, renowned for showing the inner workings of American life through his documentaries about public institutions, was at the Italian Academy on Tuesday to show segments of his new film, “At Berkeley,” for which he shot 250 hours of film.
The event consisted of two screenings of portions of the film, followed by a conversation with Wiseman moderated by Andrew Delbanco, director of Columbia’s American studies program, and Joshua Siegel, a Columbia alumnus and an associate film curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
The film chronicles the University of California, Berkeley’s battle to manage its finances as it receives less and less money from the state government. Viewers hear private conversations among university administrators as they try to come up with ways to save money without sacrificing student financial aid or employees. Heated student discussions about the topic bring a variety of perspectives.
In the two segments shown during the event, Wiseman takes viewers into faculty meetings, classrooms, and financial aid discussions. Wiseman doesn’t resort to fancy camera work, allowing the subjects to take center stage.
Wiseman made clear in the discussion that he does not take sides with anyone on the issues shown in the film. Instead, he said he presented what he observed objectively, as he did with his other popular documentaries, “Hospital” and “High School.” As another institution, “At Berkeley” was a natural next step for Wiseman.
But to many of the audience’s questions Wiseman simply said, “I have no opinion.” The filming of the movie seems that way, since there is no music or moderator—the viewer is free to take in what’s being said without any emotional steering by the filmmaker.
“I don’t add music for emotional depth,” Wiseman said.
He spoke about his process as a filmmaker, saying that a film has to have two levels: the abstract and literal.
“If it doesn’t work on both levels, then it doesn’t work for me,” he said.
His approach to filmmaking is open-ended, he said.
“I take all the sequences that I think might make it into the final set ... and it’s only at that point that I begin to work on the final structure,” he said. “When I started this ... or any other film, I don’t know the point of view or thesis.”
After 250 hours of shooting, Wiseman spent 14 months editing.
“If you are going to capture a classroom setting, then you need to film the entire session,” he said. “If you stop because you think nothing interesting is going to happen, that’s the moment when something will.”
In discussions about documentary film, the notion of realism is always prevalent.
“I don’t have any feelings that what I have is representative, because I don’t know what that means,” he said.
Jokingly referring to his work as “reality fiction,” he said he resists any sort of labels.
“Some people think that the subject of documentary film is always to expose some malicious aspect of human behavior,” he said. “But it’s also equally important to show people using their ability and intelligence to reach their goals.”