Over the past year, I have occasionally worked with award-winning filmmaker Mark Kitchell on his newest project as he attempts to get that ship launched, as it were. We recently met at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco's Marina neighborhood to talk about the new DVD release of his Oscar-nominated documentary Berkeley in the Sixties. After letting him enjoy his stir-fried squid, I peppered him with questions.
How long did it take to make Berkeley in the Sixties?
It took most of the 80s to make a film about the 60s. I worked full-time from the beginning of '84 until we got into the Sundance Festival at the beginning of '90, so that was six years, more than half of which was spent fundraising. Then I spent a couple of years distributing it [for theatrical release and television broadcast]. I came up to the Bay Area in the summer of '83 for a few months of research and then went back to LA to try to get money from the [Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)] and the National Endowments and got nowhere. I thought then that I was just going to have to turn to the community and raise some money from the people who had been part of the 60s story. So I moved up to Berkeley and spent 19 months working full-time to get started.
And you were doing this all by yourself?
There were intrepid volunteers who joined along the way; the one who was the most lasting help was a woman named Dee Andrade. Other people came and joined the project along the way, but I could never get anyone to take it on as co-producer, to be up there on the frontlines.
When did it finally feel that it was all worth the effort?
Well, you get a ways into a project and you're stuck -- the shortest way out is forward. There are plenty of documentaries that people put all their blood, sweat and tears into and then, when they're done, no one sees the work, and it's like it amounted to almost nothing. And that's heartbreaking. This film ultimately received a lot of acclaim, so in retrospect, it was worth it -- I made a movie that people liked, while making it my way, no compromises. But while you're in the middle of it, you have no idea.
So how did you get the film into Sundance?
They were tracking us -- Bob Hauck, a local guy, was on the Sundance committee -- and at a certain point asked to see it. We sent them whatever the latest cut was, straight off the editing table. Back then you couldn't just dump it off a computer; we had to videotape from a film editing machine. They asked if we could have it ready in time for the festival. This was in the fall, and I was at the IFP Market in NY, and there, in an elevator, I ran into Mark Weiss who ran [PBS's] POV. I told him about it and he was interested. Ultimately, POV bought it for thirty-five grand but that still wasn't enough to finish. So I went to PBS themselves and said, "Can you sweeten this pot to fifty thousand?" And they did. Just in time! We also got a last minute invitation to the Berlin International Film Festival. So the two premieres were Sundance, where we won the audience award, and then right on to Berlin. Berlin was clearly the most political of the major Euro festivals, so it was a good fit.
I'm curious as to how it did internationally in terms of audience reaction. There is a section of the film that addresses what was happening internationally in 1968, the mini-revolutions that were sparking, but overall, did the film come across as uniquely American? How did the Berlin audience respond?
Well, when we showed it in Berlin in February of 1990, the Berlin Wall was coming down. I went and sat on the Wall myself, even took a couple of chunks of it home. There were all these people coming into Berlin who were from Romania, from Eastern Germany, from a lot of places behind the Iron Curtain. There was one woman from Romania who saw this film as enormously important for them because they were just coming out from the brutal Ceausescu regime. There was a student movement developing there; the Communists were sending their "goons" to beat up on them -- it was a real touch and go situation. Everywhere around the world where there were student movements opposing Power, the film seemed all the more germane and people knew about it. I had a couple of copies smuggled into China because that student movement was going on then, too.
I stopped concentrating on festivals after awhile because I wanted to do a theatrical run instead. WDR in Germany bought the film, and it did well in Germany. Other countries were less interested. Europe has a lot more documentaries on the air than here, and it was also a time when European television was going private. They had quotas on how many American programs they could have. So they didn't want to blow their quota on some little documentary -- they wanted features.
Overall, it's definitely had a long-lasting impact, especially in educational institutions, where it's become part of the curriculum everywhere from Harvard to San Francisco City College to South Africa to Australia. We were making this film at a time when were told that the 60s weren't yet far enough away for it to be History. So American Experience turned us down because, in the 80s, they felt there wasn't yet enough historical perspective. Now we're as far removed from the 60s as the 60s were removed from the generation that came of age in the 30s. We didn't know much about them in the 60s, but we came to respect and learn about them. Anyway, we were the first major film history of the 60s. It's still considered one of the seminal works about the student protest movement and is used in schools today. That's especially gratifying because infiltrating schools is what we set out to do in the first place.
I have a lot of friends at various universities who've all said, "Oh yeah, Berkeley in the Sixties, we watched that" -- almost in a resigned sort of way, due to the fact that it was pushed on them in a speech or history class. They admitted they should probably watch it again because they have forced educational connotations attached to it.
[laughs] Well, movies like this, even if no one's watching them, they're in the collective consciousness. And you know they'll be there if you want to show your kid why it matters to protest a war. Of course, sometimes kids manage to figure it out on their own.
Speaking of perspectives, there are some eerie parallels between the period covered in your film and now. How do you see the timing of the film's release on DVD given everything that's going on here now?
Its political relevance has always been a little problematic. I felt a tremendous responsibility to make the 60s relevant to the present. But as we went on to make the film, at a certain point, we had to declare our independence from relevance to the present. Relevance was a big word in the 60s. The student protestors wanted their education to be relevant. I didn't want the film too closely tied to any one particular time because that would date it right away. I've seen people do that in other films and it's a bad mistake. I also wanted people to provide their own relevance, relate it to themselves and their times without it being forced.
So at a certain point we decided we wouldn't try to make it "relevant" per se. And when it came out in 1990, we were coming to the tail end of the Reagan 80s, and then, when Clinton/Gore came to power, we thought the 90s would be something different, possibly something better -- and it really wasn't. I think the 90s were disappointing to a lot of people in a lot of ways. Certainly the environmental movement had high hopes for the 90s that never materialized.
Reagan is a central figure in Berkeley so it's interesting to compare the 80s perspective on him with the 90s or now. How did people react to him in the movie?
Well, they loved that piece of film where he's making a speech when running for the Republican nomination for governor [of California] against George Christopher, the moderate mayor of SF. As Reagan went around the state talking to people, answering questions, he was repeatedly asked what he was going to do "about the mess at Berkeley." So he realized it was a campaign issue and this was the first time he made a speech about it. An interesting historical footnote: The report that he's reading from in the film was probably something that was fed to the Reagan campaign by Ed Meese, who at that time was the Alameda County DA deputy in charge of prosecuting all the radicals and lawbreakers at Berkeley. So that may have been when Reagan and Meese first got together, while digging up some dirt on Berkeley.
There have been these revelations in the past year about how the FBI was out to get [UC Berkeley Chancellor Clark] Kerr and they used Reagan basically to fire Kerr. And they were trying to dig up dirt on all sorts of other political enemies they had at Berkeley. But by the time this came out, Reagan was no longer president and people loved that speech. Partially because it's the classic "something's happening here but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?" [laughs] It's fun as the filmmaker to watch audiences viewing that piece of film because you can feel the humor building. You hear a few chuckles at first, then more laughter, and it rises to hysterics. We had a problem creatively with that speech in that it was way too long and had to be cut it down. It was only by switching it, taking the last little tag, then putting an interview in the middle, and then putting in the rest of the speech, that we were able to make it work. But now the whole thing's on the DVD, if anyone feels the need to see it.