UC Berkeley to be Subject of Upcoming Documentary

Photo: Documentarian Frederick Wiseman stands in front of California Hall at UC Berkeley. The university is the subject of his upcoming documentary.
Shannon Hamilton/Photo
Documentarian Frederick Wiseman stands in front of California Hall at UC Berkeley. The university is the subject of his upcoming documentary.

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For the past five weeks, with over 100 hours of film footage, famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman has been working to make UC Berkeley the subject of his 39th film, to be shown in 2012 or 2013 on PBS.

Wiseman - whose scope of work for more than 40 years includes noted films such as "Titicut Follies" and multiple achievements including the Peabody Award for Significant and Meritorious Achievement - hopes to focus on the administration of the campus, though his filming thus far has covered a wide range of events.

According to Wiseman, UC Berkeley's academic reputation and complexity originally drew him to the campus. His documentary will be the first made about the campus to his knowledge.

Wiseman began shooting on campus in mid-August, attending both public and private events, such as meetings of the chancellor's cabinet, with the permission of the administration. Wiseman expects to continue working for another five weeks, collecting a total of 200 to 250 hours worth of material.

Though Wiseman hopes to place "particular emphasis" on the management of the university, his footage has varied greatly throughout past weeks, ranging from freshmen moving into dorms to football games to department meetings.

Capturing the scope of the community has been the greatest challenge, despite talking to many people and having access to events in the administration, he said.

"Even if the film lasts three hours - as it well may - three hours is a nanosecond in relation to all that goes on here," he said.

Wiseman first approached Chancellor Robert Birgeneau late last year requesting to meet with him about the documentary, and subsequently had lunch with Birgeneau and George Breslauer, executive vice chancellor and provost, in January.

"Our decision to participate in this project was based on Mr. Wiseman's background and approach to such a complex topic, and the opportunity to participate in a documentary format, which allows time and thought to consider such a complex topic as UC Berkeley's operations," Breslauer said in an e-mail.

According to Claire Holmes, associate vice chancellor for communications, the campus's public status allows Wiseman to film most events without permission. His interest in the management of the university has given him an inside look.

"He had access to some meetings that wouldn't be public to explain to the audience some of the complexity of Berkeley," she said.

According to Wiseman, the focus of his film will become more clear as he goes through the editing process and begins cutting the film's sequences. For now, he does not know the sequences, order or duration of material he will choose.

"Since I only end up using about 2 to 3 percent of the material, I have to study the material and condense sequences that are too long and figure out which to use and the order to place them," he said. "It's very interesting work that takes a lot of time."

Past documentaries Wiseman has earned recognition for include his first documentary released in 1967, Titicut Follies, examining the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Mass., which was not released by courts to the public until over 20 years after its production. His latest documentary, Boxing Gym, will open in New York in a few weeks.

Wiseman said he has enjoyed the process of the film so far and is curious to see the end result.

"If I begin to even suggest the complexity of life at Berkeley, I will have succeeded," he said. "But to get it all is impossible."


Alisha Azevedo covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected]

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