With ‘At Berkeley,’ Frederick Wiseman stays true to his classic documentary style

Steve Dollar - Fred Wiseman, photographed at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. His latest documentary, “At Berkeley,” is an extended look at the University of California, Berkelely, as the institution dealt with a budget crisis during the fall 2010 semester.

Tempting as it is, admirers should probably refrain from calling Frederick Wiseman an “old master” of American film. At 83, the prolific documentarian pushes harder than many filmmakers half his age. He’s keen to maintain a pace that has produced 40 films since 1967, when “Titicut Follies,” a graphic account of life inside the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts, was banned by a judge and branded “a nightmare of ghoulish obscenities.”

Instead of controversy, Wiseman’s subsequent career has established him as an essential observer of the national landscape as seen through its institutions. The titles may be as plain as a generic food label, but the camera’s persistent focus captures intense and unhurried displays of lived experience: from “High School” (1968) and “Welfare” (1975) through such disparate later projects such as “Near Death” (1989) – at 358 minutes, the longest of his often extended films – and “Boxing Gym” (2010).

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“I work to keep myself off the streets,” Wiseman said, with characteristic humor, of a body of work that has nonetheless worn through a lot of shoe leather. It’s taken him to military outposts, meat processing plants, housing projects, courtrooms, the Neiman Marcus flagship store in Dallas and the Miami zoo. In the process, the Boston native has become as much of an institution as those whose nuts-and-bolt functions he has documented.

“At Berkeley,” Wiseman’s latest documentary, screens twice Wednesday at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring. Its four-hour running time immerses the audience in the 2010 fall semester at the University of California at Berkeley, a storied campus of 35,000 students, whose vitality is threatened by a budget crisis that underscores a larger theme: the virtues and necessity of affordable higher education.

“I wanted to do a public university and Berkeley is a great public university,” said Wiseman, perched in a corner of a crowded Toronto pub between screenings of his film at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “At Berkeley” had its North American premiere in September. “The cliche is that as goes Berkeley, so goes education in America. It’s a cliche that I think is true. The financial problems that Berkeley has been facing, and is facing, are the same in all the state universities.”

Rather than harp on that issue from one angle, Wiseman illuminates it from multiple perspectives. The film is anchored to a passionate budget meeting led by former chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, who, like everyone else in “At Berkeley,” is never identified. But the scene changes every few minutes, whether noting an African American student’s stinging rejoinder to a discussion of declining prospects of the American middle class or taking in a comical musical theater paean to Facebook. Even the location shots that fall between those moments, what in other documentaries might be called “B-roll” footage, are not trivial. Glimpses of maintenance workers on the job, blowing leaves off steps or mowing the university’s expansive lawns only appear incidental. During a budget meeting, one administrator laments that the school can only afford one lawn mower.

“It wasn’t like I was lurking in the corridors waiting for a financial crisis,” Wiseman said. “It was just all happening. I lucked out, really.” The filmmaker and his two-person crew spent three months on campus, shooting 250 hours of footage during 14-hour days with an occasional Sunday off. Out of 8,500 possible courses, Wiseman said, he chose fewer than 10 to feature in the film. “Nobody said no. I’d show up and take my chances. They weren’t pompous big shots coming to class, lecturing and disappearing.”

Although Wiseman adopted his style of filmmaking in the 1960s, when peers such as D.A. Pennebaker and Albert and David Maysles were pioneering the so-called Direct Cinema movement (or cinema verite, a phrase the filmmaker disparages as a “pompous French term”), his non-didactic approach continues to set him apart, more than 40 years later.

“Fred when he started out was doing something quite unusual in filmmaking,” said Thom Powers, documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival. “It was a bold thing to do these purely observational films. What he’s doing is still radical and set apart from what’s happening in documentary.”

The rise of what the Hollywood trades dubbed the “docbuster,” and first-person advocacy filmmakers such as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, shifted public perceptions of nonfiction cinema. In contrast, Wiseman’s work stubbornly abides as a kind of touchstone for younger filmmakers resistant to the soapbox.

“He represents the alternative to the reality TV model and to the argumentative, ‘here’s my thesis and my documentary is going to prove it’ model, so popular in the 2000s,” said Lana Wilson, a New York-based filmmaker who looked to Wiseman’s example when she co-directed “After Tiller,” a critically acclaimed documentary about the volatile issue of late abortions. “People under 30 think that’s what documentaries are.”

That’s not to say that Wiseman’s films don’t make a point, articulated through choices made in an editing process during which the director discovers his story. “I don’t like films that preach to the converted . . . because the reality is so much more complicated,” he said. “What I’m interested in doing is mirroring to some extent the complexities and the ambiguity of the reality. I never find any ideological explanation that adequately dealt with the reality I observe.”

At four hours, the reality of “At Berkeley” might seem to test an audience’s patience. Instead, it justifies the value of Wiseman’s approach. Although less kinetic than some of his most recent films, such as last year’s burlesque-themed “Crazy Horse,” the film’s talkative nature is no less stimulating. That’s due in part to the often charismatic professors and lecturers — they include former Labor Secretary Robert Reich — and to Wiseman’s knack for juxtaposition. Moments of heady intellectual ferment are likely to be punctuated by a couple kissing on the grass, science lab robots in motion or a glee club in choral overdrive.

“I like cutting it at right angles,” Wiseman said. Occasionally, he strands the viewer amid what, for the layman, are head-scratching theories. He includes a lecture on dark energy that is as fascinating as it is perplexing. “I didn’t understand it, either,” he said. “But I think very few people do. The guy who gave that class, Saul Perlmutter, won a Nobel Prize the following year.”

Now that “At Berkeley” is in release, with an eventual broadcast on PBS, the often Paris-based Wiseman is finishing his next movie, about the National Gallery in London. Aside from an annual three-week ski vacation and “a couple of weeks in the summer,” he rarely breaks from his production cycle.

“I still have the same enthusiasm that I had when I started,” Wiseman said. “It’s a really interesting life because I get to study different subjects and try and think about them and make a movie. And I get to travel a lot. I’ve had a great time, why stop? What would I do with myself?”

At Berkeley

Wednesday at 2 and 7 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre. Not rated. 244 minutes.

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