“At Berkeley,” the documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s magisterial examination of the University of California, Berkeley, is conspicuous for not identifying the scores of people shown teaching, studying and exchanging ideas in and out of the classroom. Some may recognize the university’s chipper, ever-smiling former chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, who retired this year. An even more prominent figure is Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor, now a professor at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, who delivers an insightful lecture on leadership and the need for self-evaluation.
In its refusal to identify anyone by name or job title, this four-hour film — Mr. Wiseman’s 38th institutional documentary since 1967 — makes a profound statement about democratic participation. It’s not the “me," but the “we,” that keeps democracy alive. From the humblest janitor to the most esteemed professor, everyone belongs to the same community and is equally important. The modern university is a complex organism that, to function efficiently, needs every component, including someone to cut the grass.