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Lights, Camera, Activism!

Documentary filmmaker Mark Kitchell, surrounded by images from the environmental movement.
Documentary maker Mark Kitchell believes his story of the environmental movement can be a box-office smash

UPDATE: A Fierce Green Fire premieres in New York City on March 1, 2013, and will screen throughout the country and around the world in the following months. See the film's website for details and showtimes.

In a creaky wood-floor office overlooking San Francisco Bay, the documentary filmmaker Mark Kitchell removes his glasses, runs his hand through his hair, and glares at a computer screen filled with thumbnail images of film clips. Kitchell, 59, is in the throes of a dilemma. He’s spent the past 10 years making A Fierce Green Fire, an epic documentary about the 50-year evolution of the modern environmental movement. He has two hours and 12 minutes in the can. And it’s good. "The material is vast, and it’s an incredibly dynamic film," says Cara Mertes, head of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, who has seen a rough cut. "It’s shaping up to be the documentary of record on the environmental movement. I think it’ll be hugely successful." So Kitchell has buzz. What he doesn’t have is an ending. On this beautiful spring day, with a breeze blowing in from the bay, Kitchell is forced to confront his film’s ultimate question: What does the environmental movement mean?

He looks over columns of index cards tacked to the wall. Each represents an interview, a quote, a moment, culled from hundreds of hours of film.

"Let’s try that Paul Hawken clip one more time," he tells his film editor. "It’s 8:12 into the interview."

As the editor cues it up, Kitchell turns to me and recalls a recent moment at Hot Docs, an annual documentary film festival in Toronto. During a pitch session where filmmakers present works in progress to prospective buyers and distributors, Kitchell spoke and screened a three-minute trailer. "A guy from the BBC stood up and said, 'So, what is the moral of the story? The images in the film are uplifting, but your words are pessimistic. Which is it?'"

Kitchell smiles wanly. "That’s the rub, right? Which is it?"

Hawken appears on the computer screen. The author of Natural Capitalism talks about environmentalism as a leaderless movement. "Nobody invented it," he says. "Nobody created it. Nobody’s in charge."

Kitchell halts the clip. "Do we cut it here or let him play out the metaphor?" he asks. Silence fills the room. "We’ve got to have the lightest touch. Short and sweet. It is the end of the film!"

Kitchell likes the Hawken clip but he’s not yet sold. He paces. He consults the index cards again. He turns to me. "I think the world is still waiting for the environmental movement’s defining film, a movie that brings the pieces together into a big picture and delivers the meaning of environmentalism," he says. "It’s got to be done in an intelligent, compelling way. No pounding people over the head. The brass ring is there for us to grab, and I think we’re going to grab it."

He takes a deep breath and returns his attention to the screen. "All right," he tells the editor. "Let’s bring up that Carl Pope bit…"


I first came across Kitchell’s film in April, when he sent me a fund-raising e-mail. He was trying to gin up a few bucks through Kickstarter, a website where entrepreneurs of all sorts can appeal to the masses to crowd-fund their projects. The director’s name jumped out at me. Kitchell’s previous documentary, Berkeley in the Sixties, chronicled the stirrings of student activism at the University of California, from early sit-ins to the battle over People’s Park. Released in 1990, the film became a defining document of the sixties. Berkeley was nominated for an Oscar and won the National Society of Film Critics award for best documentary.

I’d always wondered what Kitchell had done after Berkeley. The idea of creating a film history of the environmental movement struck me as audacious and, frankly, financially insane. Intrigued, I called him up.

"We’re just about done," he told me. "I’m figuring out how to open and close the film. You’re welcome to come watch us work."

I hopped a plane to San Francisco and found him in his office, which is in a former military hospital in the Presidio that’s been converted into a warren for local nonprofit groups. Kitchell is a laid-back Californian, melancholy and mellow. He keeps a lot of art on the walls. One arresting piece looks like a whirlpool of trash. "It’s based on the Pacific garbage gyre," he told me. "Oceans. One of the many strands I had to leave out of the film."

Before we talked further, he sat me down with a rough cut and a pair of headphones. "I’ll be anxious to see what you think," he said. "See you in two hours."

A Fierce Green Fire unfolds in five acts, each following a strand of the modern environmental movement. There’s David Brower and the Sierra Club fighting to keep dams out of the Grand Canyon in the sixties. The Love Canal saga of the seventies explores the ravages of industrial pollution. Greenpeace’s "Save the Whales" campaign marks the beginnings of direct-action activism. Chico Mendes and the Amazon rainforest story exemplify the globalization of the movement. And finally, there’s climate change, embodied by catastrophes both physical (Hurricane Katrina) and political (America’s 20 years of inaction). Five acts to capture the entire half-century of modern environmentalism. It’s an epic work of history. At the film’s heart are the three middle acts -- Love Canal, Greenpeace, and Chico Mendes -- stories of unlikely heroes who risked their lives (and in Mendes’s case, lost it) to stop profit-driven destruction. We’re so far from Love Canal today that it’s nothing short of shocking to relive the story -- the water poisoning and birth defects caused by routine toxic dumping, the uncaring government officials, the radical action taken by housewives. As Kitchell later remarked, "These women took EPA officials as hostages! Can you imagine?"

NRDC: Moving Pictures

Daniel Hinerfeld

Q&A with NRDC’s deputy director of communications and director of the organization’s film unit, based in the Santa Monica office.

Why did NRDC start producing documentary films?

It began in 2006 with Robert Redford, an NRDC trustee. He stood up at a board meeting and said that the most powerful way to communicate about nature is through film, and that we shouldn’t wait for others to tell our stories visually. It was an epiphany for us, and we created a small film unit. Making our own videos and movies has enabled us to engage media, policy makers, and the public on issues that previously had been challenging to convey. A good documentary opens your mind to ideas and information, and it can help overcome prejudice. The best environmental documentaries also leave you hopeful about our ability to solve the problems we’ve created for ourselves.

Read the rest here.

The film left me emotionally drained and profoundly hopeful. I’ve read a lot of environmental histories -- Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth and Philip Shabecoff’s A Fierce Green Fire are among the best -- but none has the power of film. None leaves you with images of early Greenpeace leaders Paul Watson, Bob Hunter, and Rex Weyler putting their bodies between a sperm whale and a Soviet whaling ship firing exploding harpoons.

"I came home from the Oscars in 1991 with a year-and-a-half-old daughter and my wife about to give birth to number two," Kitchell told me over a lunch of vegetables from the common-area fridge. The success of Berkeley was gratifying but not world-changing. To make rent, he directed TV shows and short documentaries. While scouting for his next big project he kept returning to the idea that had captivated him in Berkeley: people forcing change. In 2001, he said, he found his subject -- the history of the environmental movement.

Kitchell is obsessed with movement, whether it’s kinetic energy on screen, political movements in the world, action forcing change. Berkeley in the Sixties opens with a rollicking scene of cops hauling student protesters down a flight of stairs -- bumpety-bumpety-bump -- over a soundtrack of Little Richard’s "Keep a Knockin’." It was Kitchell’s way of telling viewers this would be no sleepy documentary.

"That’s what attracted me to environmentalism -- the movement," Kitchell told me. "I read every environmental history I could get my hands on. They all started with 150 pages of prologue: Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir." He mimicked a man falling asleep. "I decided I wasn’t gonna do ’em. I wanted a film about the environmental movement, the story of people fighting for change. And that really kicked off in the sixties, with David Brower fighting dams in the Grand Canyon."

Making a low-budget historical documentary means finding archival footage on the cheap. Kitchell spent years poring over previous documentaries, TV station archives, private home movies, searching any closet that might contain crumbling celluloid or videotape. There were some unpleasant surprises. In the decade since he shot Berkeley in the Sixties, the corporations that own local TV stations realized that their old images could be milked for money. "In the mid-eighties, I bought rights to the entire news archives of three San Francisco stations for a dollar each," Kitchell told me. "By 2001, when I went looking for Love Canal footage, TV stations in Buffalo were demanding $60 per second."

The project eventually grew into a six-part series. "There were so many great stories," Kitchell said. "The snail darter and Tellico Dam. The stopping of New York City’s Westway freeway. Even NRDC’s story, evolving from an environmental law firm to this concatenation of expertise and global organization."

Then in 2003 he traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to see the biologist Edward O. Wilson. Wilson, who has written both dense scientific treatises and more breezy best sellers, gave Kitchell some advice. He could make a comprehensive reference work seen by few or a movie seen by many. But he couldn’t do both.

"The audience does not want six hours, Mark," Wilson told him. "They will stop watching. They will walk out on you."

"He was right," Kitchell told me. "There are hundreds of great documentaries out there that get seen by no one." When he got home, Kitchell killed everything except the five most gripping segments. Gone was Westway. Gone was NRDC -- "I interviewed [NRDC founder] John Adams for four hours," he recalled, "and had to lose all but a few quotes."

image of Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction and is the author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw and The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. He writes frequently about the outdoors and the environment for such... READ MORE >
Is Mark Kitchell looking for private investors for his enviro-docuflick? We'd be interested? Liz and roman barczynski elmhurst il.
I'm working with Mark and yes, we are! Please email me: marc at weblab dot org