As befits the grand old man of the American documentary, Frederick Wiseman has two films at this year’s SFF: National Gallery, about London’s National Gallery, and At Berkeley, a bottom-down peek into the most venerable public university in the United States.

The distinction between public and private is one of the film’s principal subjects, as administrators at the University of California, Berkeley struggle to maintain quality in the face of cuts to the state budget, and must fend off the likes off Yale and Harvard, who can offer faculty stars double the money.

Wiseman doesn’t conduct interviews, but takes us inside classrooms and board meetings as everything from the poetry of Thoreau to the racial politics of forming study groups is thrashed out. Hyper-articulateness is the norm, and Wiseman as both director and editor lets the discussions play out. After each scene he cuts away to sprinklers on the lawn, students riding their bikes to class, cement mixers laying cement and even, at one point, the moon. The comprehensive approach is often engaging, even inspiring, but inevitably uneven. We’re treated to a hockey game, some student am-dram, a library sit-in at which students protest university fee hikes, and the film succeeds in creating a mood, a reverie, if not a momentum. It’s formless, and, at four hours long, one starts to glaze over whenever we’re dropped into yet another meeting of the executive in which they lay out budgetary shortfalls.

Finally, though, that’s the point, and Wiseman’s concern for the place and admiration for its custodians is evident. As one of the great public universities, Berkeley is a symbol of an America where social mobility is possible, an American cornerstone that increasingly looks like a fading dream. At Berkeley’s berth at the SFF couldn’t have come at a more apposite time.

3/5 stars

At Berkeley is showing at Sydney Film Festival on Saturday June 14.

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