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MARK KITCHELL : Return to Berkeley

July 21, 1991|Sharon Bernstein

Nearly 30 years after the Free Speech Movement rocked the campus of the University of California and heralded in the nation's most tumultuous decade of this century, the film "Berkeley in the Sixties" looks at the movement and its people with the eye of history.

Nominated for a 1990 Academy Award and named best documentary by the National Society of Film Critics, the film will be shown as part of public television's "P.O.V."

Filmmaker Mark Kitchell talked with Sharon Bernstein about the documentary, which was six years in the making and was produced with money raised in the Berkeley community.

Why did you make "Berkeley in the Sixties"?

I was living in Los Angeles and trying to break into the film business. And I was getting thoroughly frustrated with writing screenplays and trying to break into a business that has fundamentally different values than I care about, so I decided to go back to making documentaries, which is what I had done in college.

I realized that Berkeley was probably the best microcosm in which to look at the '60s, because it had all the elements, all feeding off of each other in this heady brew.

In some ways I made a very crass commercial choice, because I knew that a film about the '60s and Berkeley would be very interesting to a lot of people. Yet, at the same time, I was making a choice from the heart, that this was about my generation's journey of change.

Were you part of the student movements of the '60s?

I was a boy scout in junior high school at the time of the Free Speech Movement.

I was growing up in San Francisco, being shaped by a lot of this, and you could say that (making the film) was going back and making sense of the forces that formed me and in a sense my whole generation.

You make a point in the film of distinguishing between the counterculture, the hippie movement, that was happening in San Francisco and the political activism that was taking place in Berkeley. What is the importance of that distinction?

One of the things that the film does for people is allow them to explain to their children the difference between a radical and a hippie, because over time the image of the '60s has become that of a rock-throwing, dope-smoking hippie radical, all rolled together.

One of the key dynamics of the '60s was the relationship between the counterculture and the student movement. I see the counterculture and the political student movement as the twin poles of the '60s, and it was the very strong dynamic between the two that we tried to explore.

Does the film have a point of view?

What I'm trying to do here is tell it like it really was rather than give it some grand meaning.

I used to write that the '60s were more important because of the fundamental questions that were raised about the direction of society than for any particular answers. I would write that in that sense, the '60s are continuing, that those questions remain at the center of our society.

But, finally, there was a point between the rough cut and shooting the final interviews, I accepted that it would be kind of reductive to try to serve up the meaning of the '60s to the audience at the end of this film. The '60s were exploratory, and there weren't any answers that we settled on.

You include not only history in the film, but recent analysis and, in some cases harsh critiques, from people who were involved at the time. Yet, you didn't include much from people who opposed the movements at the time. Why?

This film is an inside history of the movements of the '60s. And I felt that the arguments going on within the movements were much more interesting and much more revealing than any outside critique of the movement.

One of the things we were after was good intelligent critique. We were really setting the film up as an argument between a number of selective truths that would somehow get to the broader truth about the '60s.

What will viewers take away from the film?

In a way its like a Rorschach test--different people get different things out of it and see different things.

Some people go to see our film and they come away very depressed, because it's not like that now, and because they get a message from the film that you can't change things.

But (other viewers) can look at what seemed to be a bleak time, (and realize how fast things can change.) A lot of the people in the film talked about how before the Free Speech Movement they were a small group, working on the fringe, and overnight it blossomed into a mass movement that really moved a lot of people and changed their lives in a lot of ways.

Should conservatives watch "Berkeley in the Sixties"?

Conservatives can find a lot to agree with in this film, because there are people in the film saying the radical student part of the anti-war movement really wasn't able to stop the war and turned into violent confrontation. I've got relatives who are fairly conservative who liked the film and found things to agree with. They learned a lot from it.

What did you learn from making the film?

It was absolutely fascinating to be in a position of making a film about Berkeley in the '60s and having an excuse to meet all these people and to hear their deepest, darkest thoughts and secrets.

The more I studied the '60s, the more I felt that it revealed everything about life, about civilization and people's hopes for their lives.

"Berkeley in the Sixties" airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on KCET and KPBS.

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