Berkeley in the Sixties (1990): Mark Kitchell’s Poignant Documentary

In “Berkeley in the Sixties,” director Mark Kitchell lets the rich material (interviews, footage, writings) speaks for itself, without much interference or editorializing. The various interviewees offer insights about the student movement centered at Berkeley.

The attractive campus shots, which often look like a UCB recruiting tape, give the feeling that there was beneath the turmoil underlying innocence and freedom, possibly lending to the invulnerability that the students felt toward their oppressive authority figures. Archival footage is predominantly TV news footage of both nationally-covered and local student protests, most of which were in defense of the Free Speech Movement on the campus, but also included anti-Vietnam war protests.

Fifteen interviews with major players in the Berkeley movement, comprised of UCB students and faculty activists, and two San Francisco Leftists (but excluding Mario Savio) are intercut with the footage, which also includes the then governor Ronald Reagan (before his presidential image makeover). The tone of the retrospective interviews is celebratory and reflective.

Reaction to “Berkeley in the Sixties was consistently nostalgic and appreciative. At the time of the film’s release, a wave of anti-establishment movements began, specifically surrounding Vietnam experience home and abroad. Although Kitchell’s film is focused upon the FSM, participation in Vietnam exists within the politics as a secondary theme. One former student recalls that the FSM triumph overshadowed the anti-war movement to a fault. She says that as the students dispersed after the FSM triumph, Mario Savio stopped her and urged her efforts toward ending the war. Her response was, “What war”

This theme, while addressed, is also part of the aggravation voiced by R. G. Davis in his Film Quarterly review, accusing the film’s writers (Susan Griffin, Mark Kitchell, and Steve Most) of “historical hubris.” Davis claims that the students were the center of the FSM at UCB, but the Leftist organizations throughout San Francisco were the true shakers of that city’s political legacy. In line with radicalism, Davis asserts, “This film merely celebrates the institutional and thought structures that the majority of the movement rebelled against. The Sixties were far more disruptive than this film suggests.”

Kitchell inexplicably fails to consistently identify music, performers, and witnesses, like Joan Baez, who were both known and lesser-known.

The critics also claimed that the film lacks the show of “the other” — communists, socialists, and gay activists, but does pay due attention to the women’s movement that blossomed from the student movement, that stopped troop trains long after the students dispersed at Berkeley.

The filmmaker’s representation of the parties and organizations that brought attention to the city is “clean, white, and-middle class.” Davis is upset by the lack of depth in this respect, noting that, for him, the film “is like a corpse on a life-support system. It’s well preserved and brain dead.”

Cineaste’s reviewer concurs: “Davis rightly claims that this PBS sponsored documentary represents, despite its many valuable moments, a rather mild, social democratic view of the Sixties.”

However, because the interviewees assert some arguable conclusions about the movement’s accomplishments and influence, the docu may useful in the classroom. Though Kitchell does not always probe deeply enough the situations, he does offers effective retaliation to the New Right and Hollywood films that have tried to minimize the effect of the students upon American culture and politics.