Nowadays millennials like myself and the younger Gen Z look at the baby boomers with a certain disdain, which is an interesting context for a streaming service to re-release Mark Kitchell’s Berkeley in the Sixties, which memorializes or at least reminds viewers of the student movements during that decade. There’s an inherent nostalgic air to the film, regardless of its intentions. And that’s because those students fought for things like free speech, an idea that seems pure during that bygone era.
Regardless of anyone’s opinion of those students, Berkeley is fortunate enough to find raw archive black and white footage of the activities of certain students who attended the University of California Berkeley during that time. The film eventually follows the students who formed the Free Speech Movement or FSM as they participate in various sit-ins. It also follows them as they find more issues to rally for, like protesting against the War in Vietnam.
Both the interviews and the narration reinforce the idea of these protests being the protests, one march becoming stronger and having more attendants than the previous ones, breaking out of Berkeley into Oakland, a place where the seeds for both the Black Panthers and the environmental movements are growing into their own. There’s also something in the air across the San Francisco Bay. There, the hippie movement has a different approach to its times.
The film does touch on the FSM’s encounters with different leftist movements of that time. But it does come slightly short in focusing on the FSM as its own movement after the film’s first act. Occasionally, the FSM drowns as other more iconic images make their way on screen. Images like buses transporting men who were volunteering to fight. Or interviews of the students as they were in the 1990s.
That drowning effect continues as Berkeley takes its time to depict those other leftist movements. Although in fairness it’s hard to make suggestions of which part of the story it should excise from the film. (This film is probably already rife with omissions). The film’s unwieldy tendencies are apparent when it takes time to focus on one movement. Specifically, the FSM’s perspective and relationship with the Panthers. The scenes with the Panthers will make viewers inadvertently compare it to Varda’s more focused work.
The criticisms against this film is valid. But even its digressions don’t distract from the question that millennials or Gen Z-ers are asking. We ask whether or not the student movements of the sixties had any success. The movements then had a weird combination of hard work and fun in bringing the social change. Change that I, as a queer person of colour, feel, enjoy, and sometimes neglect. What they accomplished, for the most part, is enough, even though there are times when it isn’t.
Berekeley in the Sixties comes to OVID tomorrow.