Sydney Film Festival Review: At Berkeley (USA, 2013)

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Of all of the films screened at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival, At Berkeley is perhaps the timeliest, considering the recent reveal that the budget here in Australia could see considerable changes to the tertiary education landscape. At Berkeley acts as a peek into how the University of California, Berkeley, is run in the context of US tertiary education systems.

Directed by celebrated documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, At Berkeley has a very quiet and stripped back delivery. It is a fly-on-the-wall experience as the camera remains static during most of the shoots inside lecture theatres, classrooms, rehearsal spaces, meeting rooms and the infamous Chancellery. As these scenes tend to be, for the most part, dialogue-heavy, it is paired nicely with shots of campus. We as the audience watch gardeners maintain the grounds, construction workers building and renovating new areas and students walking to their next class (or, for the most part, falling asleep in the warmth of the grass after an intense study session).

At Berkeley leaves no stone unturned, covering every aspect of management, administrative, support and academic staff and the crucial student experience. All fields of study are revealed in the documentary from science to musical theatre to literature. Value is seemingly placed on all of these educational areas as each make a contribution to humanity, opening up a view of the world that we live in.

The timeliness of the film, in its scheduled screening at SFF, stems from the issues presented in many of the scenes on campus. It appears to be a time of change at Berkeley, where the ‘middle-class’ are beginning to be considered a group that may struggle with budget changes at the public university, impacting on student fees and cuts to staff. Many of the board meetings we are exposed to discuss the issue of finances (in terms of graduate careers and student loans) and preparation for the inevitable student protests that will follow when this comes into effect. One of the most impactful scenes is a discussion by university management on how to deal with protests that escalate, calling upon policeman at crisis point.

The issues in At Berkeley really hit home in Australia as university staff are also experiencing the repercussions of the budget including casualization of academics employed to work on short contracts as researchers and lecturers. Students in Australia may also face eternal debt as fees may be hiked and privileges removed. There is one scene in the documentary where students walk along campus chanting “No cuts, no fees, education must be free!” which is a sentiment held by many not just within Berkeley but on an international level.

The documentary is quite engaging and an experience one individual would probably never experience if it wasn’t for the production of this film. That being said At Berkeley has a 244 minute running time (yes that is about 4 hours), so get comfy and make sure you bring along an extra-large cup of coffee. After this is all said and done, there is still a lot to be pondered, discussed and debated on the future of university education.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

At Berkeley screens at 10am this Saturday, 14th June at Sydney Film Festival. Details are HERE.