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By Kate Smith
14th June 2014

‘At Berkeley’ is an unusual documentary. There are no interviews, no music montages, no obvious theme or message. It's the definition of a social commentary, with real people dealing with real situations, making decisions and sometimes mistakes.

Firstly, and most noticeably, this film is four hours long. Yes, four. With no intermission. At times, I was begging for it to be over, particularly during the unnecessarily long construction scenes, which consisted of nothing but earthmoving machinery or a small army of workers laying concrete.

The concept behind this documentary is simple: it's a series of fly-on-the-wall scenes describing the basis, reasons, and build up to a student protest. However, there is no guide to this progression; we're left to figure that out as we near the 3.5-hour mark.


The film begins with a lecturer describing the founding of the university and move on to the access issues low-income students face. Most scenes are simply round table discussions between students and their teachers, or administrators. Only nearing the three-hour mark do we have any cohesion in the scenes as the protest takes place. There're a few genuinely funny moments, and others that are funny in an ironic way, especially those that look at current trends among young people and their values.

There are moments that highlight the fundamental differences and universal constants across societies, particularly if we compare the U.S. with Australia. Almost all the speakers are articulated; the exceptions are younger people, and the difference draws attention to the way language has changed, as the better spoken are much older. The documentary draws attention to the myths of higher education, the big one being that once you graduate you're guaranteed a well paying job.

The documentary draws attention to the myths of higher education, the big one being that once you graduate you're guaranteed a well paying job.

Berkeley is an institution famous for student activism brought about by its diverse student and faculty populations. It's a university that prides itself of accepting and supporting lower income students, and much of this film is concerned with the reputation of Berkeley.

The complete lack of soundtrack was extremely noticeable, but it does emphasise how crystal clear the sound was despite there being no attempt to modulate background noise (all that construction). The editing was simple; no fancy tricks here. Talking scenes were regularly interspersed with shots of the campus and people moving about, striking in their homogenised diversity. Every single scene in ‘At Berkeley’ is deliberately placed and thought through, and I wish I had it on DVD to re-watch for the complete meaning, and nuances I missed on the first viewing.

‘At Berkeley’ discusses tough and sensitive issues - taxes, education costs, racism, and the disparity in opportunity between social classes. It's not an entertaining film... which is okay, because it's not meant to be. It's a commentary, a thinking catalyst to encourage us to examine our own concepts about issues in the education system. If you can sit through four hours of discussion and construction, and are passionate about education and social reform, this film is for you.

RUN TIME: 4h 4m
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