As an Australian living in America I have had to watch quite a few movies set in US schools. Frivolous comedies or hard-hitting dramas and everything in between and I still find a lot of it entirely baffling. At this year’s NYFF I have been able to get a couple of very comprehensive looks at the system thanks to doco legend Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley and American Promise from husband and wife filmmaking team Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson. Together they provide an illuminating look at the American education system from kindergarten right on through to college. As they should since together they total a gargantuan six hours!
The 83-year-old Wiseman isn’t exactly shy of long runtimes, but even compared to the recent 134-minute Crazy Horse and 159-minute La Danse his latest is quite an effort.
At a smidgen over four hours, At Berkeley is certainly comprehensive... Sprawling in scope if not style (digital can do such a disservice to a film such as this, but thankfully it's not four straight hours of ugly pixels), it’s an enthralling look at a four-month period in the life of the University of Southern California as it faces budgetary problems and an increasingly vocal, left-wing student body.
Wiseman, traditionalist as he is, works from a purely observational perspective. He lets lengthy scenes of boardroom meetings and classroom discussions play out with minimal directorial interference and never once goes into the history of the university or its employees/students. As a matter of fact, nobody is even credited on screen, nor is every scene entirely justified within the broad sense of narrative that Wiseman eventually carves out. And yet that’s all part of its fascinating charm. It’s simply a film to get lost in and embrace. An all-encompassing piece of filmmaking that allows audiences to experience this period of time.
It certainly made me want to go back to the world of tertiary education and I imagine many viewers will have the same desire that I did in wanting to jump in to the ethical conversations that make up the majority of the first hour. You may just feel smarter for seeing it (and, er, maybe a little dumber - these kids are tuned in!) As Wiseman’s film becomes primarily focused on concepts of class, race, and what it means to receive a higher education, it becomes hard to not be inspired by the youthful enthusiasm of its student subjects. Even if they lead a somewhat misguided, albeit entertaining to watch unfold, protest that occupies much of the last hour.
In contrast to At Berkeley, the early stages of education are taken up by American Promise, which follows two African American boys from their pre-teen admission to exclusive Dalton Academy in New York City on to their acceptance into college. Just as expansive, in many ways it echoes Steve James’ Hoop Dreams in the way these two boys eventually split off into different directions, face hardships and the dominating parents whose desire to see their child succeed in life fails to take into consideration the potential damage they're causing, nor the fact that not everybody equates life success to basketball trophies and a six-figure income.
What makes American Promise most interesting is that directors Brewster and Stephenson are actually two of the film’s subjects. And they do not come off well, which I guess is a sign of artistic integrity. Their seemingly endless berating of their son makes for uncomfortable viewing in the 135-minute doco. As it eventually follows these two young boys into high school, one in private and the other public, it asks the audience to question the motivations behind education and the way society was fostered a culture where artistic and social pursuits are seen as less important. As At Berkeley notes, education used to be about learning whereas now it’s about getting a job that will pay for our over-inflated lifestyles.
If anything, American Promise really could have been four hours as well. The director’s Q&A that followed after Thursday’s press screening was actually more illuminating and I would have greatly appreciated some more in depth examinations of issues that were raised. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest to see both films are associated with PBS, although I am glad they’re both receiving theatrical releases after the festival. At Berkeley especially, even with its mammoth runtime sans intermission, deserves every minute of attention. The Academy's documentary branch would be well-advised to not ignore it. I know it's long and they have hundreds of films to watch, but Wiseman has never even been nominated for an Oscar and what a time to finally get him there?
At Berkeley will be released in cinemas on Nov 8, but there's still two chances to see American Promise on Oct 5 and Oct 10.