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‘At Berkeley’: Frederick Wiseman hears from the well-spoken

Students do some talking “At Berkeley” documentary shot famed Californicampus. Director Frederick Wiseman also hears from administrators professors. | ZIPPORAH

Students do some of the talking in “At Berkeley,” a documentary shot on the famed California campus. Director Frederick Wiseman also hears from administrators and professors. | ZIPPORAH FILMS

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Zipporah Films presents a documentary directed by Frederick Wiseman. Running time: 244 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center and airs at 10 p.m. Jan. 13 on WTTW-Channel 11.

Updated: February 4, 2014 6:09AM

How do people talk on a campus in California? Intelligently, answers “At Berkeley.” This 4-hour-and-4-minute documentary is directed and edited by Frederick Wiseman, who also records the audio. Aiming his microphone at administrators, professors and students, he listens attentively and asks no questions.

Since depicting a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane in 1967, the Boston-based filmmaker has documented many institutions around the country, including the Ida B. Wells Homes in 1997. He never adds onscreen text to identify any person or place, although he sometimes shows a sign on the outside of a building: Free Speech Movement Cafe and Goodman School of Public Policy, for example.

“At Berkeley” alternates between exterior shots of the campus — framing a passing skateboarder, bicyclist, Frisbee tosser, sunbather, lawn mower and leaf blower, among others — and almost 40 interior scenes in offices, meetings, classrooms, lecture halls, labs and a library during a takeover. We observe smart people do the right things with words.

Wiseman is not at all ironic when he includes a former Secretary of Labor lecturing on an organizational culture becoming “self-conscious about its process, about how it can improve itself.”

State budget cuts pose a crisis that triggers a student protest. A minority student challenges her white classmates: “Why should I care about the fact that you care about poverty now?” Abstractions about “egalitarianism” and “possessive individualism” take pragmatic turns in debates on affordable access to higher education.

Mocking the vocabulary of academics and bureaucrats is not the aim.

Wiseman spent time in classrooms in his much shorter “High School” (1968) and “Missile” (1987).

“At Berkeley” earns credit for documenting a distinctly articulate community. Along the way, you can learn about our brain stem pulsing a signal every 1/41,000th of a second, and the 37,000 work orders per year handled by the maintenance department.

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