Frederick Wiseman: Reasoned Arguments
This interview was originally posted at Senses of Cinema.
Frederick Wiseman’s second documentary, High School (1968), was at the time of its release an unprecedented glimpse into America’s public education system. Throughout his career, Wiseman has bristled at the terms used to describe his style—direct cinema, “fly on the wall,” cinema-verite—but his decision to observe teacher-student interactions from a position of apparent objectivity upended the traditional models of non-fiction filmmaking. Rather than a top-down statement of administrative priorities, High School is a kind of tangential conversation between Philadelphia teenagers and the adults who were charged with educating and enculturating them. As a result High School remains compelling today. The film is a time capsule of a tumultuous moment in American history, to be sure, but it’s too human and too deeply felt to ever become a dusty museum piece.
Forty-five years later, Wiseman’s influence on documentary filmmaking is inescapable. Yet no one makes films quite like his, and certainly not as well or with as much intelligence and curiosity. In 2010, Wiseman arrived on the campus of The University of California, Berkeley, intent on adding another feature to his on-going series about institutions. He happened to start the project during the darkest days of America’s economic recession, when state legislatures across the country were divesting in public education. At Berkeley is a four-hour, wide-ranging portrait of that moment. He and his small crew spent time with university administrators, with student protesters, and in a variety of classrooms and research facilities. “The movie is what I felt about Berkeley,” he told me.
I spoke with Frederick Wiseman at the Toronto International Film Festival, where At Berkeley received its North American premiere.
HUGHES: I should start by saying that I’m a cinephile and fan of your work, but like a lot of film writers today, I do this as a freelancer. In my day job, I’m communications director for the University of Tennessee Foundation, where I spend most of my time reminding the people of Tennessee, our alumni, and the state’s legislators about the importance of public higher education.
WISEMAN: Oh, well, then you’re familiar with all of the issues!
HUGHES: Yeah, this might be a bit of shoptalk for me.
WISEMAN: That’s interesting. That’s fine. Get them to show the film in Tennessee.
HUGHES: Is that an option? Your films typically show in the States on PBS. Do you have other distribution plans in mind?
WISEMAN: Yeah, it’ll be shown on PBS in January, but it’s not the same thing. It’s much better to see it projected. It’s opening commercially in New York, and it’s being booked around the country. I’m hoping the film gets booked in state universities because the issues are the same everywhere.
HUGHES: When you were here in Toronto a couple years ago with Boxing Gym (2010), you said during the Q&A that one reason you were drawn to the gym was because the guy who ran it was such a good teacher.
WISEMAN: Richard Lord, yeah. I thought Richard was a great teacher and a great psychologist because he knew how to deal with the people in the gym.
HUGHES: I would guess that 30-40% of the new film is teachers in the classroom, which is a rare sight in films—I mean, to really get to watch people do the hard work of teaching and mentoring.
WISEMAN: I’m interested in teaching, and I’ve observed teaching in a variety of circumstances, not only the high school movies and Boxing Gym but Near Death (1989), where you see the senior physicians introducing the residents and the interns to a variety of ways of dealing with people—and the families of people—who are dying. I mean, it’s an obvious consequence of making movies in institutions where knowledge is being passed on.
And Berkeley has great teachers, so that was certainly part of the attraction to this subject. I was making a film about a university, so I wanted to show teaching in action.
HUGHES: Another perk of shooting at Berkeley is that you have very articulate subjects. I assume that was part of the attraction too?
WISEMAN: Well, sure, because sometimes I’ve had very inarticulate subjects! A necessity for a good teacher is the ability to talk clearly and convincingly on a subject. The faculty at Berkeley is something like 3,500 people and there are 5,000 courses, so there was a lot to choose from, and I make no claims in the film that it is a representative sample, because I don’t know how to do that.
HUGHES: One of the men in the film—maybe he was a vice chancellor?—says, “The coin of the realm is articulate argumentation.”
WISEMAN: The provost. Yeah, a crucial statement. Reasoned argument.
HUGHES: You arrived in Berkeley during the recession, when the California legislature was accelerating its divestment in public higher education. It all felt eerily familiar to me. In 2008, about 27% of University of Tennessee’s operating revenue came from state appropriations. By 2012, it had dropped to 18%.
WISEMAN: Berkeley was at 16% when I made the film; it’s now 9%. Really, it’s becoming a type of privatization. It’s complicated because the states’ economies are in bad shape, but also I think there’s a . . . you know more about this than I do . . . but I have a sense that there’s, well, two things: One, there’s an effort to apply a cost-benefit analysis to courses, so if there’s only six people taking Portuguese, why offer Portuguese, or if there are ten people in a political science class and 500 people in an engineering class, why do we need political science?
But there’s also a political . . . there may be, I don’t know if I’m right . . . but there may be a political agenda behind that. In a sense, dumbing down the nature of the education so people aren’t aware of the historical aspects and traditions of the United States, or the way the government is supposed to work, or what the founders had in mind with the Federalist Papers, blah, blah, blah. And that’s very dangerous.
HUGHES: Pat McCrory, the governor of North Carolina, recently said, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” In a single stroke, he dismissed the grand tradition of classic liberal arts education.
WISEMAN: Yeah, it is dismissing it. That’s the point. But the question is whether that’s just for economic reasons or whether it’s a political agenda behind it, and I don’t want to answer that question.
HUGHES: You’re implying you think there is.
WISEMAN: I think for some people. I mean, the Koch brothers, for example, have an interest in that sort of thing. I’m not just implying it. I think for some people there is that agenda. How widespread it is, I don’t know.
HUGHES: Fitting, then, that you would choose Berkeley as your subject. That campus, probably more than any other in America, has a tradition of inter-generational conflict and direct political action. The ghost of Mario Savio haunts your film in complicated ways.
WISEMAN: See, but that’s interesting, because one of the things I discovered while I was there was that most students, I mean 85-90% of the students, don’t participate in those things. But because of what was going on in the ‘60s, there’s this myth about Berkeley. My guess is that even in the ‘60s most of the students weren’t participating. And certainly not now.
HUGHES: It’s interesting, though, that the very thing that Savio was railing against nearly 50 years ago—the collaboration between public higher education and the military-industrial complex—is perhaps even more prominent today.
WISEMAN: And part of that is a consequence of the lack of funding. The state funding has been replaced by research funding—sometimes by large corporations, sometimes by the military. But I must say, my impression was at Berkeley that when they took that kind of funding there were no strings attached. They went where the research led them, not where the funder wanted them to be. They weren’t producing results to support the point of view of the funder.
HUGHES: Every time you cut away to a construction project on campus, I imagined a new building going up with a donor’s name on it. I was hoping the film would touch on the role of private gift support.
WISEMAN: I couldn’t get access to it.
HUGHES: Interesting. So, what was your process for getting access to the university?
WISEMAN: Generally speaking, I had access to everything that was going on except insofar as somebody didn’t want to be photographed. But the person in charge of fundraising thought that it would interfere.
HUGHES: I’m sure it would.
WISEMAN: So I didn’t have access to that. Despite the fact that the final film . . . they love the final film. There’s a reception this afternoon for Berkeley alumni in Toronto, who are going to be shown excerpts and be told about the film.
HUGHES: That’s great. Doesn’t surprise me at all.
WISEMAN: [Smiles] Well, because it came out alright, from their point of view.
HUGHES: I know you’ve talked about this a lot over the years, but how do you find the shape of a film like this? What are your shooting and editing habits?
WISEMAN: I just figure it out. I mean, there are no rules. For instance, within a sequence I have to feel that I understand what’s going on, and then I have to decide what I think is most important. Then I have to figure out a way of shaping the sequence, editing it down, summarizing it, synthesizing it in a way that is fair to the original even though it’s much shorter than the original.
I mean, a sequence in real time might be an hour and a half. Some of those cabinet meetings were an hour and a half, two hours. In the film, it’s six, seven, eight minutes. I have to edit them so they appear as if they took place the way you’re watching it, even though it’s 30 seconds here, five seconds there, and then I jump twenty minutes ahead. But I have to edit in such a way that it looks like it all happened the way you’re watching it.
So that’s within the sequence. Between the sequences I have to figure out the overarching themes and the dramatic moments. An abstract way of describing what I tried to do is I tried to cut it at right angles so you’re always surprised by what comes next. And at the same time, in terms of the rhythm of the movie, I have to think about quiet moments. I mean, after a dramatic scene I don’t want to go to another dramatic scene, so I may use cutaways of the campus or whatever.
But when I use cutaways to the campus, I use them for a variety of purposes: sometimes to show movement from one place to another, other times because I need a quiet moment, or it might be that I want to show that everyone has a cell phone. Particularly for those transition shots, there are multiple purposes.
HUGHES: In those shots, you’re also making very specific choices about how to depict the campus.
WISEMAN: That’s true of everything.
HUGHES: Sure. So, occasionally we see people working in corporate-style offices, for example, but you also return often to a large lobby or foyer . . . I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it has beautiful Spanish arches.
WISEMAN: Right, right.
HUGHES: And in those aesthetic choices of representation you’re also adding your voice to the film. Is that fair to say?
WISEMAN: Sure, because I want to show the architecture. I want to show the students sitting on the floor. I like the shot of the light coming down through the arches. I need a transition between two classes. All of those things are elements in the choice of that shot or that group of shots.
HUGHES: Okay, but a beautiful shot of light coming down through those arches also brings a point of view to the film. Yesterday I was discussing this with a friend who described At Berkeley as very fly-on-the-wall and free of advocacy . . .
WISEMAN: There is no advocacy. “Fly on the wall” is a term I object to. There was no advocacy going on in the sense that I never asked anybody to do anything.
HUGHES: Just from talking to you face-to-face, though, I get the sense that you’ve become invested in the subject. Would you describe yourself as an advocate for higher education?
WISEMAN: I’d describe myself as a filmmaker. I mean, I think I’ve realized as a consequence of making this film—I don’t think I ever thought much about public education before I made the film—but as a consequence of the experience, and having the opportunity to listen to these administrators at Berkeley discuss these issues, I learned something about the issue.
The project originated because I thought a university would be a good addition to the series I’ve been doing on institutions. It’s a natural consequence of doing High School, and universities are important in American society, in any society. So the impetus for doing the film had more to do with wanting to do a movie that fit into the institutional series. But I wanted to pick a public university because that raised more issues.
HUGHES: One storyline in the film is Berkeley’s effort to reduce spending through operational excellence and process engineering. It’s probably my favourite aspect of the film—and I’ve never really thought about my own university in this context—because in that sense, the campus becomes a microcosm of post-recession America . .
HUGHES: Where the lowest wage earners . . .
WISEMAN: They’re the ones who get . . . yeah.
HUGHES: There’s a scene where students are discussing the cost of attending Berkeley, and a middle-class girl breaks down . . .
WISEMAN: She cries.
HUGHES: She feels the same squeeze experienced by so many over the past five years. Were you surprised to find that connection?
WISEMAN: I was surprised only in the sense that I was ignorant of the issues. But having had access to so much of what was going on at the university, I’m less ignorant.
HUGHES: Chancellor Robert Birgeneau is a compelling character on screen. I imagine when you meet people like him, you must think, “This guy will help the film. We have something here.”
WISEMAN: He’s the one who gave me permission to make it. He was the first person I met. He was the person I contacted in order to get permission.
HUGHES: Was he aware of your work?
HUGHES: So that helps.
WISEMAN: Yeah, he was aware of the films, and he was very open. I wrote him a letter, basically saying, “Can I make a documentary of Berkeley?” and explaining the circumstances and the funding and all that, and he wrote me back, “Come and see me.” I went to see him, and I had lunch with him and the provost, and at the end of the lunch they said, “Okay.”
HUGHES: That was a tremendous risk for them.
WISEMAN: Oh, it was. We talked about that. But, you know, obviously he trusted me. He told me explicitly at the end, when it was over and he saw the movie, he was glad his trust was not misplaced. The movie is what I felt about Berkeley. If I’d felt something else about it, it would’ve been in the movie.
HUGHES: He seems to have that rare talent to make very difficult decisions but to do so with tact and wisdom.
WISEMAN: Well, he’d been a dean at MIT and president at the University of Toronto before he went to Berkeley. He’s a very smart man and had a lot of experience.
HUGHES: I enjoyed watching his response to the student protestors because he’s sympathetic to them—just like I’m sympathetic to them—but his biggest frustration is that there’s so little at stake for them.
WISEMAN: Right. And he compares it to his own experience in the ‘60s. I think he’s also concerned, basically, about their ignorance of the real situation.
HUGHES: Part of my job is public relations, and nothing is more frustrating than when the other side gets the basic, underlying facts wrong.
WISEMAN: It was amazing to me how badly wrong they got them at Berkeley, because to make a principled demand for free tuition at this point . . . it’s a fantasy. It wasn’t a question of the university withholding. Free tuition just wasn’t in the cards.
HUGHES: In the film, at least, Chancellor Birgeneau’s heart seems to be in the right place.
WISEMAN: Exactly! I’m glad to hear you say that. That’s exactly how I felt. One of the interesting things for me about making the film was that I was with a group of people who cared. I think that’s just as important a subject for a film as people who are callous and indifferent.
HUGHES: Because of where I sit in my job, I’ve seen all sides of those debates . .
HUGHES: . . . and I can say that it’s very rare to meet someone who has dedicated his or her life to higher education and not cared deeply about it. It was nice to see that on film.
WISEMAN: I felt the same way. It was nice for me to get to experience it.