NEW YORK — DOCUMENTARY film has taken on new popularity in the past couple of years. Pictures like ``Roger & Me'' and ``The Thin Blue Line'' have shown - once again - that nonfiction movies can be as gripping, as witty, and as personal as anything Hollywood has to offer. The latest documentary to head for commercial movie theaters is ``Berkeley in the Sixties,'' a lively and provocative look at protest and dissent, California style. As the title suggests, it's full of hippies, antiwar marchers, Black Panthers, and other folks who want to turn the establishment upside-down.
Considering its subject, however, the film itself is surprisingly traditional, blending present-day interviews and '60s film clips into a straightforward account that manages to be convincingly factual and bracingly opinionated at the same time. The movie's director, Mark Kitchell, clearly feels his subject has enough drama to captivate an audience without cinematic surprises along the way. And he's absolutely right about this. ``Berkeley in the Sixties'' doesn't open up new paths in filmmaking, but its contents are as vivid and sometimes astonishing as any fiction to arrive on-screen in quite a while. One hopes it will command the kind of attention that has greeted more freewheeling documentaries lately. If it does, we'll know that nonfiction film in general - and not just isolated examples of the ``Roger'' and ``Thin Blue Line'' sort - is still an option for commercially-minded moviemakers.
``Berkeley in the Sixties'' begins in 1960, with a demonstration against the House Un-American Activities Committee that ended with protesters being fire-hosed by police. This event might have been quickly forgotten, but the US government made a film about it - to show the evils of dissent - which publicized the incident and actually drew activists to the Berkeley campus, in an ironic testament to the power of documentary film.
``Berkeley in the Sixties'' continues with a long look at the Free Speech Movement, a protest against university policies that drew national attention, especially when activists surrounded a police car and used it as their speaking platform for two days. No sooner did this movement end than someone said, ``We've got a war to stop,'' and Vietnam protest quickly escalated. So did the black-power movement, and the making of the '60s counterculture with its message of ``make love, not war.''
These were controversial causes in the '60s, and they remain so today, insofar as they still find a place in public discourse. The makers of ``Berkeley in the Sixties'' report that government agencies shied away from funding their project; it was paid for largely through individual contributions and volunteer labor, although the PBS series ``P.O.V.''provided money for its completion. The film's production notes describe it as ``a community effort, as grassroots as its subject,'' and that seems a fair description of a movie financed by more than 1,000 people over a six-year period - a rare thing in the big-money world of feature-film production, and rarer still for a movie that successfully makes its way to the commercial-theater circuit.
``Berkeley in the Sixties'' deserves its success, including the Audience Award it won at the United States Film Festival earlier this year. Mr. Kitchell and his collaborators have clearly put hard work and active imagination into the interviews and digging up movie clips that bring their subject convincingly to life. Their digging went quite deep, too - footage of the People's Park movement, which brought together activists and counterculture idealists, was located in distant Finland.
In assembling material, they've also been conscientious in showing how complicated the '60s were, despite the oversimplified public notions that have persisted. The film reminds us continually that people disagreed even then about fundamental questions: How far should protest go? When does dissent turn into chaos? And who's this revolution for, anyway?
Most important, ``Berkeley in the Sixties'' recalls a time when many Americans had strongly held ideals that went far beyond the wish for good jobs and creature comforts. Those ideals may have been mistaken or even crazy in some cases, but they were full of life and energy, and the people who held them were determined to go their own way regardless of what the authorities deemed right and proper. Such a time may come again. In the meanwhile, this movie is a stimulating reminder that such a period existed, not all that long ago.