The recent spate of documentaries about the environment -- from fracking to the honeybee die-off to the consequences of industrial food production to the melting of glaciers -- amounts to a kind of proof, in and of itself, of the ratcheting importance of climate change. (Whether you think filmmakers are ahead of the public or bandwagon jumpers, numbers don't lie.) Significantly, these films don't aspire to simply inform the viewer of a growing problem or deteriorating condition but are resolutely action-oriented. It has something to do with the urgency of our situation as inhabitants of an overheating planet, of course, but also with the widespread recognition of audiences that objectivity in documentary film is an illusion. Consequently, advocacy films no longer have to pretend they are anything else.
It's not coincidental that the new crop of environmental docs is the output of younger filmmakers, who've focused their ire and impatience on the here and now. So it's jarring, in a retro way, that local filmmaker Mark Kitchell devotes fully four-fifths of his epic call to environmentalism, A Fierce Green Fire, to events and episodes from the past. Although Kitchell's decision to take the long view could be seen as a generational thing (he turned 60 last year), it's more reflective of his longstanding reverence for history.
Berkeley in the Sixties, his Academy Award-nominated 1990 feature doc about the Free Speech Movement, stands as one of the great nonfiction achievements in the American canon. That impassioned and invaluable film benefitted, however, from the tension between two competing views of the student left's strategies and success (a petulant Todd Gitlin vs. a slew of proud veterans of the antiwar movement). It also dealt with a largely discrete and completed historical chapter; most crucially, the Vietnam War was long over.
A Fierce Green Fire, in contrast, arrives with the outcome of the fight still in doubt. The environmental movement has accomplished no permanent, certain or inviolable victories, that is, as long as Earth's survival is jeopardized by human activity. Indeed, when the film finally turns its full attention to the present -- or near present, for there was no way to include last fall's Superstorm Sandy and its "contribution" to the climate-change discussion -- and shocks and spooks us with the limited amount of time we have left to head off catastrophic global warming, it relegates all of the environmental movement's achievements moot. And from a viewer's (or movie reviewer's) perspective, it undercuts everything that's preceded it. If the situation demands our immediate attention, why have we been fiddling for an hour and a half while the planet burns?
This is not to question the film's conclusions, nor Kitchell's research and intentions. You and I recognize that a knowledge of history is essential, as well as inspiring. But in this case, with this subject, the filmmaker's decision to reach back in time is at odds with the imperatives of the present. The upshot is that A Fierce Green Fire plays more like an educational film than a theatrical release, ideal for schoolrooms and future generations (might as well be optimistic, right?) but lacking the narrative and emotional wallop vital to a call to action at a time of crisis.
I've not told you much about the content of the film, which devotes chunks to the late David Brower of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth (whose complicated career is explored in greater depth in S.F. filmmaker Kelly Duane's marvelous 2004 doc, Monumental: David Brower's Fight For Wild America) and the industrial pollution and government cowardice that gave us Love Canal (accompanied by Tom Lehrer's great, acerbic ditty, "Pollution"). Greenpeace founder Paul Watson's heroic efforts to stop Russian whalers are recounted, as well as the late Chico Mendes' work to organize Brazilian rubber tappers against landowners hurrying to clear forests for cattle grazing.
A Fierce Green Fire is a solid, useful introduction to the history of environmentalism in the United States, and deserves to have a long life in the educational market. Of course, that depends on humanity having a long life.
A Fierce Green Fire opens Friday, March 15, 2013 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.