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FRF's Cleo Godsey interviews Mark Kitchell, director of Berkley in the Sixties

Cleo: What inspired you to make Berkeley in the Sixties?

Mark: You could say Berkeley... is my back pages. But I was (in a collective sense) their kid brother, growing up more hip than radical across the bay in San Francisco. I wanted to make an homage, an exploration, have a chance to go back and dig into the issues. Besides, I knew enough to know it was a fabulous story -- and there was bound to be great news footage of the events. On some level I made a crass, or at least calculated, decision -- that a good film on the Sixties was something a lot of people would be interested in, that it would do well. So it seemed worth putting years of work into -- because film is a mass medium and I wanted to be certain there'd be a mass audience. On a simpler level, it was such a good idea, so obvious, that I couldn't believe someone hadn't already done it. Over the course of making it, I came to understand why -- it was a long struggle -- but still it was a film that needed to be made. I just happened to step up first.

Cleo: Your film has been called the best documentary about the sixties. What allowed you that access into the sixties?

Mark: Making the film in the community made it much better. No public funding was to be had in the Reagan years and private foundations almost universally turned us down, so we were forced to go to the people whose story it was to raise the money to make the film. And that meant we had to listen to lots of opinions and feedback about the film, which we screened throughout the entire process. In some larger sense, we triangulated all that advice, took what was best and most germane, and distilled it down into two hours.

When I started the film, I didn't know any of these people. I just jumped in and started networking. Some people were difficult or standoffish. But for the most part people were willing and interested in seeing a good film made about one of the most important parts of their lives.

As for the archival film, the key was getting a news librarian at KRON named Guy Morrison. He was thrilled I was making the film, opened his archive and arranged for us to use it for one dollar. That deal got us similar deals at two other Bay Area television stations -- and they provided the lion's share of archival material. In the course of six years working on the film, we managed to dig up every indie film or source of footage, too -- and there were some great filmmakers whose work we used, like Steven Lighthill, Lenny Lipton, Gene Rosow and Allan Francovich, Harvey Richards... it was great fun and an honor to build on the back of so many giants.

Cleo: What do you think audiences of today could learn from the protest movements of the sixties?

Mark: That was always the $64,000 question. I felt compelled to deliver the meaning of the Sixties, and struggled with it mightily. Late in the making of the film, however, we decided the best thing we could do was present lots of ideas and arguments, and let the audience decide what it all meant. After all, relevance changes with time and we didn't want to peg the film to any too specific present. Young people today watching this film can decide that there's nothing like that going on now, and be depressed or wring their hands. Or they can see how what was a small movement suddenly blossomed in circumstances of civil rights and opposition to a bad war. We're prone to think our children don't have it so good, that we at least had a movement to give us purpose and meaning. But in fact there are plenty of movements going on now. The struggle is hard, the tide seems to be running the other way -- but you can see in this film how quickly all that can change.

Cleo: In light of your research of the sixties and US politics during that time, how do you read today’s political climate?

Mark: Well, it's not easy being on the left or even a liberal these days. It's certainly a more cynical, less naive or idealistic time -- which is both bad and good. But there's plenty of fodder for political protest and outrage. And it's often necessary for things to get worse before there's enough popular pressure for change. I'm hoping that Iraq goes badly, and cures the neo-cons and everyone else of imperial delusions.

Sometimes I think of the distinction one of the people I interviewed for the film made between radical and revolutionary. While his friends were turning revolutionary, Jeff insisted on remaining a radical, arguing that their role was to critique society and engage in changing it, rather than trying to overthrow it. These days that kind of deep questioning and radical critique seems to be the most authentic response to this society.

Cleo: Do you think sixties-style protest can work today?

Mark: Can sixties-style protest work today? Sure. But you have to have patience, understanding, a strategic sense... Protest doesn't always work. It can cause dissension over tactics and ends versus means. Despite some of the arguments we highlight in the film, the movement worked best when it put pressure on mainstream politics, when it forced the issue of the war in Vietnam. By the time it succeeded in doing so, however, much of the movement had burned out or gone to extremes. So it's usually a complicated dynamic at work in any protest movement -- especially one big and powerful enough to have legs.

Cleo: What was the process of making the film like: How did you find funding? Were interviewees accessible and willing?

Mark: The process of making the film... It was a long, hard struggle. We were shut out of traditional documentary funding. So we were forced to launch a grassroots effort... and ended up raising a quarter-million dollars from over a thousand individuals. We ended up raising money from the same people we were going to for their stories -- so sometimes I faced a bit of an ethical dilemma. But I relied on basic honesty and persistence... and in the end we benefited enormously from being so rooted in the community.

People sometimes ask why Mario Savio wasn't interviewed, since he was so important and the central to the Free Speech Movement. We went through a long process with him. He convened a committee to meet with me and decide whether I was worthy. They gave their okay, so Mario agreed to be in the film. But then he backed out. It turned out he wanted an oversight committee that would have veto power over the final cut -- this from Mr. Free Speech! But he sincerely believed it would make the film better. So I tried agreeing, and then settled on the only practical solution: let him sit out the first round of interviews, see the rough-cut and then decide whether the film was good enough. As I hoped, it was good enough, but lacked a certain something that only he could provide. So he agreed once again to be interviewed. But then he backed out a second time -- for personal reasons that he never divulged, I think he just preferred not to be in the limelight. Once the film was done, he came to the premiere... and told me afterward that it was a great film and that he was sorry for turning me down. Anyhow, in the film he lives as a young firebrand and we never see the haunted look and the shock of white hair in the Mario of more recent years. So maybe it was all for the best...

Cleo: What first influenced you to become a filmmaker?

Mark: I come from a family of artists. I was trying to compete with my brother the painter, doing photography and light shows in high school, and seeing the possibilities of putting images in motion. I had ideas about film's ability to mimic inner states of consciousness. And I set out to realize that potential, but upon entering NYU film school fell in love with documentary. It was the years of cinema verite and NYU was a gritty, in-the-streets kind of place. I was living on the Lower East Side and looking for a documentary to make, when Coppola came to my block to make The Godfather Part II. So I made a film about how the community was impacted, a story of expectation and disappointment. After that film was done, I turned to Hollywood and a career in production. But after much frustration, I turned back to my first love -- documentary -- and decided to do a film about Berkeley in the Sixties.

Cleo: If money were no object, what film would you like to make?

Mark: I'm making that film now, or at least trying to raise the money to make it. It's a history of the environmental movement, a six-part series that will be the first comprehensive film on what is arguably the most important movement of our time. I see it as a continuation, an expansion of Berkeley in the Sixties.

Cleo: Who is your favorite filmmaker/s?

Mark: Lots of favorite filmmakers. Many of them made docs distributed by First Run. And there are lots of feature filmmakers who make films entirely different from what I do, that just take my breath away with their art. I've always loved Battle of Algiers and admired the Pontecorvo brothers. I'm afraid the list would be too long, and it grows late...