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Berkeley in the Sixties
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Filmmaker Mark Kitchell recalls the campus protest movement, with interviews from now and clips from then.
Magnificent! Deserves to be seen by anyone interested in a better America! --San Francisco Examiner
A potent blast from the past! --New York Times
Two thumbs up! --Siskel & Ebert
- Archival Gems
- Deleted Scenes
- Archival Photo Gallery
- Trailer Gallery
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As Kitchell recounts it, the Sixties at Berkeley really begin in the decade's first year, in 1960, when students from the University of California at Berkeley went to San Francisco City Hall to protest the House Un-American Activities Committee, that emblem of 1950's repressiveness. But the conflict truly begins when UC president and chancellor Clark Kerr's vision of the university as a "knowledge factory," a center for the "growth of the knowledge industry," comes into conflict with the perspectives of students who are concerned about larger "off-campus" issues like civil rights, apartheid, and the nuclear arms race. The university's ham-handed attempts to squelch student dissent lead to the Free Speech movement that unites students from across the ideological spectrum. And while conservative forces within UC seek to dismiss the Free Speech Movement as a "civil rights panty raid" -- at one point, Ronald Reagan is shown denouncing "the so-called 'free speech advocates' who have no appreciation for freedom" -- the viewer can see in the images and testimonials that Kitchell orchestrates a profound cultural shift in progress.
Yet Kitchell does not romanticize or idealize what happened at Berkeley in the 1960's. The film offers an argument that the initial successes of the Free Speech Movement caused protest-minded young people to gravitate to Berkeley from all over the United States, fostering the development of a culture of protest for the sake of protest, just as the focus was shifting from the civil rights movement to the war in Vietnam. The development of a counterculture oriented around drug use only adds to the volatile nature of this social ferment.
In contrast with the tightly organized and clearly focused protests of the early 1960's, the later protests seem amorphous and dangerously directionless. For example, with regard to the creation of a "People's Park" on what had been a parking lot at UC Berkeley in 1969, it is hard to argue with the assertion of one community leader that "the issue is, we must have a confrontation. As soon as you give them a park, they'll dream up another confrontation." At the same time, it is distressing to see a helicopter flying above the campus of an American university, preparing to deploy tear gas against student protesters below. It is easy to see here the tensions that erupted on college campuses across the United States during the 1960's, and that led to the tragedy at Kent State University in 1970.
The movie does spend considerable time on civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War protests in nearby Oakland -- important and interesting, though it takes focus away from what the title promises: a look at Berkeley in the Sixties. I would have liked to have seen more of what was happening to collegiate culture at the University of California during this period. Not *everyone* was protesting, after all; there were those who wanted things to go on as they always had, with fraternity and sorority parties and football games (the Golden Bears participated in Pac-8 football throughout the period), and it might have helped to talk more about those tensions on the university campus.
While one does see 1960's luminaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Joan Baez, and Allen Ginsberg, the bulk of the testimony from "Berkeley in the Sixties" comes from people who were leaders of the protest movement. Perhaps the film should have been called "The Culture of Protest at Berkeley," though that title sounds better suited for an academically oriented history from, say, the University of California Press. Nonetheless, Kitchell provides a powerful and thought-provoking look back at an extraordinary time in the history of American higher education, a time that seems unimaginable today. Walk around the college campus that is nearest to the place where you live, and try to imagine tensions like those of the 1960's unfolding there. Nowadays, on the 21st-century college campus, if there's not an app for protest, or a popular Facebook page dedicated to protest, or someone whose clever tweets about protest are drawing lots of followers, I don't think there's likely to be much protest.
Berkeley was at the epicenter as the counterculture politics of the '60s emerged. And revisiting the political ferment of '60s Berkeley can offer an unusually helpful overview of these interwoven political currents. This film does that very, very well. It rises far,far above films which simply recount the intense experimentation with sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll that eventually characterized the counterculture. This film focuses on the often-less-understood, and fascinating, politics of the time.
The fascinating footage (including early glimpses at Reagan as a
relatively new "pol"), the deft editing, the years-later retrospective reflections of "now-grown-up" participants in the Berkeley "FSM" (Free Speech Movement) -- these are all very engaging, and beautifully assembled. But what makes the film great for me is its clarity in reflecting the interplay of counterculture themes: the movements for free speech and for civil rights, the movement against the Vietnam War, and assertion of the new feminism. Along with the energetic pursuit of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," these elements - blended into one 'tsunami' of a movement -- were experienced by us all coming of age during that time, throughout the US and throughout much of the world. But as a young person during that era, who became very swept up in the self-proclaimed "dawning of the Age of Aquarius," I recall also feeling unclear on how these ideological components -- which otherwise seemed to me distinct and substantively unrelated - became intertwined in the social politics of that era.
Whether the film is slanted, and whether "The Movement" was positive or negative, seem to me besides the point. The Movement was; like it or not, that reality is indisputable. From varying perspectives, our entire culture experienced it, and was affected by it. Most of the many millions of us on college campuses during that time were forever changed -- for good, for ill, or both. This film presents the most coherent depiction I've seen of how this happened, what it's "logic" was - and manages to do so engagingly, without becoming pedantic. That's a whole lot for one film to do, even for someone who respects and loves film as our culture's greatest current art form.
Having been a sixties activist has, of course, nothing to do with my opinion - I thought the film was absolutely marvelous!
The only problem with my purchase was that I could not view it [I bought it for my collection] - the format will not play on New Zealand DVD players.
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Video quality good.