<2013.5>: Criticism Commented. About the aesthetic contents of Frederick Wiseman's documentary At Berkeley. Für Herbert Hrachovec. 29250 Zeichen .html

content and criticism
esse est percipi
the aesthetic


Documentary cameras almost everywhere in public space, cameras almost permanently in our hands, the visual document as testimony of our life almost indispensibly necessary. In such times when pictures not realist have a hard time – surrealist pictures, expressionist, (ad free) abstract, constructive, drawn, painted pictures – of getting produced and appreciated at all like Matthew Barney's it seems to be obvious that realism has long become since the predominant art form.

Without choosing readerly seclusion – – it can be said that this predominance is one of the reasons why documentaries have gained a reputation much beyond the experts' field to which an education in the history of documentaries was limited only 20 years ago. Today we know and are aware of 'documentary' achievements like those of Robert J. Flaherty with Nanook of the North (1922), Dziga Vertov with Man with a Movie Camera (1929), John Grierson/Stuart Legg/Basil Wright/Harry Watt/W. H. Auden/Benjamin Britten with Night Mail (1936) as well as of more recent and diverse documentary authors like Luchino Visconti with La Terra trema (1948), Alain Resnais with Night and Fog (1955), Claude Lanzmann with Shoa (1985) or Michael Glawogger with Megacities (1998). Even Ari Folman's animated 'cartoon' Waltz with Bashir (2008) can be discussed as a documentary today.

After Cinéma Vérité, Direct Cinema and video based alternative documentation of the 1970ies documentaries have become a field of competition and business since the challenges of private TV in the 1980es instigating, on the brink of reality TV, new formats of documentation for private as well as public TV. An own documentary scene emerged with the discovery of an art house audience that provides TV producers with a secondary market. Movie theatre classicism versus the hybrid formats of the genres of docu-drama, docu-soap, docu-fake, documentary play, feature, documentary animation …

content and criticism

It is evident that Fredrick Wiseman's documentary At Berkeley which had its world premiere at La Biennale, in Venice on September 2, 2013 subscribes to realism. What is the reality of the University of California at Berkeley? 4 hours At Berkeley after all. To be sure, we learn a lot about the University of California at Berkeley. We learn that UC Berkeley is a tough place to persist, learn that the University (the film shot in fall 2010) expects a decrease of 16 percent after steady decrease of public funding since 2000. The figure is given without any further comment. The task would have been to make visually explicit what belongs to the internal structure of any company: money. According to figures from the year 2012-13 (see the detailed, taken on November 11, 2013 and, the market value of the entire endowment of UC Berkeley is $ 2.6 billion (2010) with funds of $ 2.16 billion consisting of 12% state funds (including state research funds, compared to 47% in 1991/92), 27% tuition & fees (for a California resident $ 15,712, for a non-California resident $ 30,814, both including health insurance), 32% contracts & grants, 13% sales & services of educational activities, 7% private gifts and funds (44.5% from alumni, parents, faculty, staff, friends, 32.5% foundations, 14.4% corporations, 0.3% campus-related organizations, 8.3% other sources), 5% investment income, 2% non-operating revenue, 2% other funds.

We learn among other things that the University administration, together with Berkeley Police, skillfully handles a student protest, on October 7, 2010, including a sit-in (in the biggest library hall of the campus) and demands for general free access to the University. We learn that this was achieved by a special joint agreement between the University, the mayor of Berkeley and the Berkeley police. We learn of diversity discrimination in setting up study groups by students. We learn of leisure activities like a rock' n' roll dance gathering or a students' choir at those places spread over the campus. We learn of student encounter groups reflecting their social and ethnic situation or background (we see for instance a young woman crying become unable paying tuition because of salary cut of her mother, a teacher herself. She is sort of spontaneously comforted by a black woman student handing a tissue and is told to claim a loan by the adviser of the discussion group where this happened who herself, as she reports, had good experience with getting and repaying it.). We learn of PhD students doing research on dead birds, robot folding a towel and prosthetics in laboratories. We learn of the chancellor's observations and recommendations on contracting tenured faculty. We involuntarily learn of how to avoid personally addressing a disabled test person as if he were only a testing mouse. We learn of a bizarre group of paramilitaries (a Tea Party corps?) strolling and practicing on the grass on and outside the campus. And we learn of the Golden Bears football team of Cal (Cal nowadays is the short form of UC Berkeley) opening a game at Memorial Stadium arriving at the football field with smoke like in a trailer of an action movie. And, of course, we become acquainted with lots of exciting teaching situations shown in short or at some length like time as a construct with reference to Stephen Hawking, Thoreau on the carnage of small animals in Walden Pond versus a seemingly solemn environment around, the sexual connotations of John Donne’s poem “To His Mistress Going to Bed” (too many student heads shown that watch and listen to the recitation of the poem with sexual connotations, conspicuously cut often), cancer cells not developing cancer in a chicken embryo, a discussion of Primo Levi's Grey Zone, a musicology class reading a book which refers to composer Gustav Mahler, a lecture on supernovae and how humans live outside the earth in 2200 by a Noble laureate professor, former United States Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in the Clinton Administration on succesful leadership requiring the need for feedback.

Not so much that I miss things like Wiseman featuring the social sciences, Cal's numerous foreign language studies, computer science (The Beauty and Joy of Computing, nicht 2010), environmental studies, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender studies, theater/dance/performance studies, celtic studies, chicano studies, college writing program, chinese, japanese, korean, tibetan, various Environment courses, lesbian gay bisexual transgender studies, geography, italian studies, landscape architecture, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, university chorus, or something like the Fall 2013 freshman seminar Reading Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov as an Answer to Our Current Electronic Isolation (see the 536 pages catalogue of fall 2013 semester). For some like Christopher Campbell it may be funny he doesn’t show us the law school or documentary film program at the school of journalism( since Wiseman, before turning to film, studied law, workes as a lawyer and taught at “Boston University's Institute of Law and Medicine, often taking his students to visit law courts and prisons” ( And for others like Peter Bradshaw: The once controversial western civilisation course isn't even mentioned.(

What I miss more are pictures given of the special relationship of the City of Berkeley and its people to the University which is the biggest employer in town, a fact that corresponds to vice provost George W. Breslauer's description of the University as a small city. I remember witnessing the breakthrough of Nirvana with Nevermind during winter 1991/92 with white lower middle class pizza bakers on Telegraph Avenue demonstratively playing with high volume “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at open doors as if protesting against upper class campus students. And I remember, at the end of Telegraph Avenue, wood boards replacing windows smashed during the nation wide spread Los Angeles riots. Wiseman who started his critical film work in the late 1960ies only shows the beginning of Telegraph Avenue, the "symbol of the Counterculture of the 1960s" (, nowadays perishing as a folklore pedestrian zone. But he misses to provide a pan shot from the Campus's Sather Gate or surrounding to this first part of this famous street beginning at campus limits in order to explain what? That this street was important for student protest and counter-culture decades ago? That People's Park is in walking distance down along Telegraph Avenue? Ever heard of the Free Speech Movement that came from Berkeley? Of course, this would have meant to consider even visualizing theoretical and historical assessment of for instance John Searle, the campus war. A Sympathetic Look at the University in Agony, New York-NY/Cleveland-OH: The World Publishing Company 1971, for instance the chapter “academic freedom”, 183-212, or W. J. Rorabaugh, Berkeley at War. The 1960s, New York-NY/Oxford-E: Oxford University Press, 1989. It therefore does not come as a surprise that demands by protesting students are declared by Wiseman following the administration's opinion as contradictory (which they probably were), but not shown in which respect. To show this would presuppose reading the leaflet. But who would do this when nobody does it unsollicited, and Wiseman is frightened of getting instrumentalized showing the leaflet lying on the ground or sticking on a wall. Wiseman doesn't even go to places where students can feel among each other, to fraternities, to their everyday life. He imposes restrictions on the depiction of the student world. Students are not shown participating in the remainder of their lives in the dormitories, rented rooms, kitchens where they cook. Recreational activities outside the campus or official univerversity's offerings are banned. As At Berkeley often lacks pictures of the whole lecture roomr, oral or written exams, consultations in office hours, campus cafés, student parties, enrollment, actual child care for students, health services, housing, the Pacific Film Archive, Rape Prevention, the University Art Museum. And finally nothing is shown or marked off of de-cal, the courses initiated and led by UC Berkeley students themselves, see

Like with the temporal “outside” Wiseman pays only one short visit to the spatial outside/rs of the University which is rendered by him as identical with the 178 acres central campus throughout the film. He shows nothing of the dormitories in the south, the mansion district in the north, the Laboratories in the West, or of downtown in the east or of CalTV and radio station kalx. This raises the suspicion whether Wiseman's focus on teaching and administration ran into the production of a filmed brochure for prospective students and their parents in accordance with chancellor Robert Birgeneau advertorial statement: “Simply put, Berkeley is the best public teaching and research university in the nation. Our students are at the center of an unsurpassed educational experience, learning with the world’s top scholars and with their peers, a student body with a phenomenal range of backgrounds, perspectives, and talents.”, page 3. And I miss attempts to visualize or making the audience get in touch with the topographical specifics of Berkeley campus or comprehend the public nature of a state university which is so particular to UCB. As with topography, any succesful movie, fictional or non-fictional, needs to deliver in this respect.

Like it or not, as a documentarist you need to do journalism, which is to refer to events that you cannot foresee. It is strange that Wiseman has no pictures of the fall 2010 founding of the “Berkeley Student Food Collective <which> opened after many protests on the UC Berkeley campus due to the proposed opening of the fast food chain Panda Express”,_California#1970s_to_present.

The Cal temptation, as I would call it, is to give in to the constant need for a strong institution's identification, idée d'oeuvre, according to Maurice Hauriou' theory of the institution. Wiseman unfortunately is a case for that. If you are not aware of this danger you cannot deconstruct or analyze what otherwise becomes the cliché, the ideology of one of the major representants of education industry. The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw has six words for this: “promotional video for the host institution” (

esse est percipi

Strangely, Wiseman uses a unusual old typeface in bold for the writing of the two words At Berkeley and the opening and closing credits. That may ironically as well as authorially refer to the times of philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) whose spiritual ancestry of the founding fathers of Berkeley City could have been told in some way by Wiseman. As he doesn't, the reference – if I am right – relates to a still healthy and undisputed subject to which philosopher Berkeley had contributeed 300 years ago indeed. The closing credits have a special thanks to the leading trio of the University Administration and to all students and faculty of UC Berkeley. But the irony involuntarily extends to Wiseman himself. At Berkeley is a perception of the University. Does its existence depend on this perception. The answer in terms of a media society is yes. But we think further and recognize that the being perceived, the percipi, may also concern Wiseman himself. He does not exist unless perceived. If Wiseman means this then it is poor joke.

In an interview for DP/30 (, 28'42”), Wiseman told it is almost impossible today to get celluloid film material and if so, it is a lot more expensive than it used to be. Therefore he switched to the digital camara as already for “Crazy Horse” (2009), and “Boxing Gym” (2010). At Berkeley needed one year editing the film. He tells that the project started in spring 2010 with a letter to the Chancellor and lunch with him and provost Breslauer. Their view was that “a public university should be transparent”. Wiseman says he enjoyed editorial autonomy, so they saw the movie only when it was finished. “Of course, I am trying to make a dramatic movie”, says Wisman at 9'51” for the dramatic structure of which “I don't how to make choices that are so-called 'representative'”. He had wanted some people of the adminstration, something of the crisis, of 6 or 8 classes, arts and science and humanities. The shooting lasted three months. Wiseman stresses the importance of conveying the literal aspect and abstract-metaphorical aspect making them explicit by means of he sequences and order of their placement. Concerning research on location, Wiseman says at 16'45”: “I don't do any research. I think the shooting of the film is the research.” That entails shooting a whole class or meeting no matter how boring it is. Wiseman works with PBS (PBL) which shows his movies, since 1968, always in prime time. In another interview – (53:25) – Wiseman reports that he had a person hired for getting acquainted with the campus, a former member of the administration who also helped to get permission from professors (called by Wiseman), or for shooting at cabinet meetings or other administrative meetings, providing lists of what was going on in the class rooms during the week. For Wiseman, the last stage of the work is focused on the internal rhythm of montage, then the external rhythm of the sequences of the film. In still another interview ( 19:44) at this year's New York Film Festival given with former chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau and provost George W. Breslauer, Birgeneau says there was no formal agreement between the University and Wiseman, there was only a veto right to cut material – in fact five times – when Birgeneau was talking about Sacramento politicians, and, after a question from the audience about the political significance of Clark Kerr, chancellor from 1952 until 1958 and UC president until 1967 in these Mario Savio years, the leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement: “Every chancellor stands in his shadows since”, Birgeneau confessed. And Wiseman on the choice of the university at 6'49”: “Berkeley is a great university, and it's a public university.” That's it. No word about the heroic past. As with the protests, they started at ten o'clock in the morning and ended at 7 at night, the 22' of “occupy” is still too much proportionately, says Wiseman.

Be that as it may, Wiseman with At Berkeley communicates a sovereignty in coping with the visual which is based on an astonishing array of documentaries he made before on related subjects: High School I and II (1968, 75 min. and 1994, 200 min.), Hospital (1969, 86 min.), Near Death (1989, 289 min., about Intensive Care Unit of Beth Israel Hospital in Boston), Public Housing (1997, 195 min.), La Comedie Française, ou, L'amour Joue (2001, 223 min.), Domestic Violence I and II (2001, 2002, 196 min. and 160 min.) or State Legislature (2007, 217 min., on Idaho Legislature day-to-day operations. (See inventory and a list of all movies on Wiseman now plans a documentary of the London National Gallery of Art.

In an official statement Wiseman writes: “My film about the University of California at Berkeley presents a strong and accomplished administration and faculty working hard to maintain — in the face of a severe financial crisis — the standards and integrity of a great public university, which is at the service of highly intelligent and diverse students. It was a privilege to film at Berkeley. The film is consistent with my efforts to make documentaries about as many aspects of human behavior as I can. I think it is just as important for the filmmaker to show people of intelligence, character, tolerance, and goodwill hard at work as it is to make movies about the failures, insensitivities, and cruelties of others. At Berkeley is an illustration of this idea. At Berkeley is the 38th film in my series about contemporary institutions. I spent twelve weeks at Berkeley and shot 250 hours of material. The crew consisted of myself and two others. No events are staged and there is no artificial lighting. The editing of the film took 14 months spread out over a two-and-a-half-year period. The film presented a particularly interesting editing problem since the diversity of material was much greater than in any of my previous films. A public university is a complex organism made up of many parts — students, faculty, administrators, staff, police, alumni, politicians, and the community in which it is located. In the editing I had to try and find a way to suggest these interrelationships, and their complexity, while simultaneously giving a sense of the entire institution. … CREDITS Producer, Director, Sound, Editor : Frederick Wiseman Photography: John Davey A Production of Berkeley Film, Inc. A Zipporah Films, Inc. Release in Co-Production with Berkeley Film, Inc. and the Independent Television Service (ITVS) with funding provided by the Corporation For Public Broadcasting (CPB), Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Ford Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and Fund, Rosenthal Family Foundation, and Pershing Square Foundation. Executive Producer for ITVS: Sally Jo Fifer” (

the aesthetic

Wiseman's methodological ascetism shows. With no account of or comparison for UC Berkeley, Cal is no example for a system or the world wide university system that assimilates universities today. As a matter of fact, UC Berkeley is not unique in terms of a mixed public and private university system. It can be compared to for instance the University of Texas at Austin. Wiseman's method of individualization gives way to the temptation to speak of the University. This is not because of Wiseman's lack of money or time for featuring other universities as well. It is Wiseman's own decision as an author not forced to justify his enterprise. Period. UCB is shown as the system, as paradigm for at least all University of California universities.

For aesthetic reasons and reasons of maintaining the viewers' attention Wiseman demonstratively excludes captions and even the exposition of writing as far as possible. Wiseman holds subtitles for instance for persons counterproductive: “if you put subtitles to the film it ruins the pictures” ( This aestheticization adds to the aestheticization of film material which has been advised already by early documentarist John Grierson because of the lack of narratives.

Peter Bradshaw meets the aesthetic of At Berkeley when he characterizes its “'top-down' approach” as follows: “Wiseman's directorial signature: long, unbroken takes, no voiceovers, no interviews, no subtitles indicating exactly who or what we are looking at” with the consequence that “everything here is so unworldly and high-minded that the resulting emphasis on ideas is strangely refreshing.” (

Additionally, Wiseman's aesthetic ideal appears to be the cleanliness of the university, not just of the buildings and garden areas on campus which is believed – according to UCB administration, as the movie shows – to be absolutely essential for the reputation of the University in general. Unfortunately this extends to the people recorded. It seems that Wiseman has a preference for good looking people. For him it is obviously out of the question to take any pictures not or non-aesthetic. There is a general tendency not only in documentary film to approach persons and objects too closely. Consequently this shows in a lack of objectivity. In this respect I was already disappointed by Nicolas Philibert's La Maison de la Radio as with Wiseman's La Danse.

One of the amazing things is that nowadays many of the administrative meetings seem as if they were, on condition of “public value”, open for screening because of increasing media pressure, technology available, storage and transmission capacities of the internet. This admits Wiseman to the opportunity of revealing the administration as human and not as the diffuse hidden center as is felt very often. These guys are not only human, they are impressive, starting with their rhetoric capabilities. Also, there is a variety of great photography of the lecture halls, of those painstakingly clean hallways, of great portraiture of students, professors and administrators, images that result from long shots derived during the talk of persons usually in class rooms, lecture halls.

Happily, At Berkeley does not deliver additional sound. Pleasant for a 4 hours movie, there is only the sound of talk, cleaning/construction and the music played for leisure. This appears to have been sufficient for Wiseman's aims. The audience encounters a series of talks/discussions/lectures and sound or music following each other timed like Ozu's good timing and rhythm (Werner Rappl). So noise is important. Wiseman accounts for that. I remember, back then in the early 1990ies, that from time to time there was almost unbearable noise on the campus being produced right outside class rooms or in buildings or in open areas caused by cleaning and gardening personnel or construction workers.

Wiseman's method includes further rules.

Don't use old film footage or photography done by other film or TV makers!

Don't do interviews, hence a kind of positivist aestheticization.

This makes Wiseman an auteur lending At Berkeley a particular feel since French auteurs back then evolved from the directors' (re)appropriation of an artistic screenplay in fiction movies. Of course Wiseman's production mode does not allow the development of a particular aesthetic to any particular movie. But there is another asthetic, the aesthetic of the object which is featured. Does Wiseman not notice the aesthetics of the campus landscape which is an English garden? Also, why does Wiseman not endeavor to a precise rendering of architectural and landscape space. He could have focused on the south fork of Strawberry Creek, the curiosity of the “Eucalyptus Grove, which is both the tallest stand of such trees in the world and the tallest stand of hardwood trees in North America.” ( He could have done justice to the fact that UC Berkeley is a test field in itself, for instance with a scientific environmental aesthetic of its own, of what is called today the standard for green buildings called Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design.


Wiseman never explained in satisfying depth what he means with saying he does reality fiction. But what is a document anyway? As it happens often, a closer look at a concept makes things more difficult. For what is a document? Isn't the 'document' of an institution something different than the preferred imagination or representation of the institution of a legend university?

Imagine a university asked: “Msr. University, documents, please! Show up with the appropriate material!” What may be presented is the licence conferred upon the institution of University so and so in state X, contracts of sale of land and houses, a bank account with the according book, teaching contracts, enrollment records, and so on and so forth: these are factual papers of identity documenta! – testifying to the existence of a body, an embodiment, a configuration of a certain space and a certain time possessed by certain persons or groups admitted to that body. These papers make for a fine exhibition of uniques. These papers could be assembled for a collective reproduction in a book with a definite number of copies and would be called documentation effectively. In fact, for lack or instead of such kinds of documentation there is, here we go, the documentary (movie) (). Note: movie in brackets. The documentary movie-in-brackets is nowadays THE “interesting” substitution, decoration, aestheticization of the thing, the real. It amounts to the reality of the real, of what would be boring otherwise even though it were THE document, THE certificate, THE record, THE real thing. The task of the documentary (movie) is to make more of it, because the real thing is not enough. – It could be a special TV broadcast. It could be a newspaper supplement. It could be a radio broadcast. No, the documentary is a movie-in-brackets. And like all movies it is destined to be screened in movie theatres. The documentation imagined before which most probably will never exist is compensated by a documentary. It is not the document, be it a facsimile of it. It is only what is document-like, documentary. The soft version. We do not know how representationalism got into that kind of movies forming an ontological ideology of reality. A documentum is not representational. According to the old Latins, a documentum is a left over – Reality may be a one-time event or a returning event, but hey, everything can be real: a pictorial representation, a sample of whatever things, a gesture expressed, a written statement, the smell of a coffee shop, believe me, that large size coffee from Cesar E. Chavez Student Center was the best coffee I've ever had (see = – that is working as a teaching (doceo) thing to be accepted as dóxa or dógma as a threefold thing: example, sample, warning. How does this show in a documentary?

And what effects would all this have on the custom to situate the documentary besides fiction and experimental film like documentary photography is situated between staged and experimental photography, or TV news between entertainment and advertisement? We know, news is selected, constructed, aestheticized and narrativized. So is the documentary. But then we feel the need to demand from the documentary that it also shows the levels in between by de-selecting, de-constructing, de-aestheticizing and de-narrativizing without getting lost in a pile of facts. Wiseman's At Berkeley is fine in that it keeps maintains the attention to look at an institution like a University for hours. Now it would be fine to do justice to the real complexities of a University like Berkeley's in all situatedness and dimensions. A university is aesthetic only occasionally.

©  Peter Mahr 2013