Frederick Wiseman, 83, is one of the United States' greatest living directors, though his specialty is not the stuff of Oscar awards or talk-show topics. He makes institutional documentaries – time capsules of how we live. They are as rich as any fiction. His latest, At Berkeley, has its final TIFF screening on Sunday.
A portrait of the famous California university as the administration struggled with a financial crisis induced by decreasing state support, it's an alarming and heartening snapshot of the state of higher education.
The Boston-born Wiseman is a Yale-trained lawyer who turned to filmmaking in the mid-sixties. His directorial debut, still perhaps his most famous film, was Titicut Follies (1967), a politically controversial documentary about conditions in a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane. Since then, most of Wiseman's docs have announced their subject in their title, including High School, Public Housing, Basic Training, State Legislature and Boxing Gym. The films use no voice-overs, no interviews, and provide neither an acknowledgment of the camera's presence nor onscreen titles to direct the audience's attention.
Still, Wiseman, who says filmmaking always involves manipulation, makes no claims to objectivity, and rejects any of the usual definitions of this kind of filmmaking, which is variously called direct cinema, observational cinema and cinéma-vérité. For At Berkeley, he shot for 12 weeks, accumulating more than 200 hours of footage during the university's 2010 fall term.
We met at a pub near TIFF headquarters to talk about how he does what he does.
When you approached Chancellor Robert Birgeneau [a former president of the University of Toronto] about making this film, what were the conditions of shooting?
I went out there thinking the odds were maybe a thousand to one he'd agree. I had lunch with him, and it was a very nice lunch. It was very much an interview, and I guess I got the job. I think he wanted to size me up and see if he could trust me. I guess he felt it would be useful for people to see the kind of people who were running [Berkeley] and the quality of the students. The gamble he took was that I would show that. He didn't have any control over it at all.
The institution is huge. What was your game plan?
Only that there was a movie to be found in the subject. Beyond that, I got someone to be my liaison [former administrator John Cummins] who knew the university. The goal of the shooting is to accumulate a lot of footage. I had no idea what the themes were going to be or the point of view was going to be, nothing beyond getting some interesting sequences.
Obviously there's some pre-election. You chose to cover a range: some science, some humanities, sports, theatre.
Exactly. I knew I wanted the backdrop of the administration dealing with the financial crisis, and I wanted to visit some classrooms. There's maybe six or eight classrooms shown in the film. I wasn't trying to be representative. I don't even know what "representative" means.
How do you organize the footage?
First thing, I go through all the sequences and I set aside all the sequences that I think might make it to the final film, and then I edit them. And only after I've finished editing those so-called candidates do I begin to work on the final structure.
How would you describe your agenda?
My agenda is to make as good a movie as I can, which becomes a report which fairly, rather than objectively, represents the experience I had when I was there. I honestly don't have a point of view, because I usually don't know enough about the subject. The point of view emerges from studying the rushes and converting them into sequences and then a dramatic, narrative structure.
What does "dramatic" mean to you?
What you see. I don't mean to give an evasive answer, but it's a story with a beginning, middle and end. My approach is more novelistic than journalistic. When a movie of mine works, it operates on two levels. There's a literal level – such and such happened. But then it also has to work on an abstract level, which has to do with the implications that arise out of the order of sequences and the structure, which, if it's done properly, suggests something beyond the literal.
So you must have to be honest with yourself not to push it in a certain direction?
Yeah. That's the hard part, to be honest with yourself. To be tough on the material and be tough on yourself. That's the reason the whole process is so interesting.