Sundance 2012: 'A Fierce Green Fire' tells environmentalist tale
Documentaries focused on environmental issues are something of a staple at Sundance. One of last year's entries, "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front," was even just nominated for an Academy Award. But rarely do environmental-themed films come with the ambitious scope of "A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet," directed by Mark Kitchell and having its world premiere at the festival, which aims at nothing less than the history of environmentalism itself.
"The main difference between my film and a lot of other environmental films is that instead of it being focused on the issues, ours is focused on the movement and activism," Kitchell said in an interview Thursday afternoon. "I feel that telling stories of activists, taking up the battle and fighting, is the best way to explicate the issues. And that was my main handle on the environmental subject, doing the movement story."
"And nobody had done it yet," he added. "It's a brilliant idea, a hugely ambitious idea and something I feel is very needed. And I guess it was my hubris that I thought I could give meaning to the movement."
Kitchell is a veteran documentarian based in San Francisco, best known for his Oscar-nominated "Berkeley in the Sixties," about the Free Speech Movement and counter-culture protest. He initially began work on "Fierce Green Fire" in 2000 with the working title "The Environmental History Project," leaving and coming back to it in the intervening years as other work and production financing allowed.
He returned to the project in earnest in 2007-08, conducting extensive interviews and research and acquiring some financing through online crowdsourcing.
Kitchell landed on a five-part structure for the film, beginning with the origins of the environmental and conservation movement in the early part of the last century and moving forward to the efforts in the 1960s of the Sierra Club to halt dams in the Grand Canyon. From there, the film looks at the grassroots activism around the Love Canal in the 1970s, the origins of Greenpeace and the rise of an international environmental movement. It concludes with a chapter on the contemporary issue of climate change.
"I had a standard complaint, that in most books I read it took 100 to 150 pages of background, pioneers, all the great people like Thoreau and so on before we got to a movement," Kitchell noted. "And I decided I wasn't going to do that."
By focusing on climate change in the film's final chapter, Kitchell hopes to bring the history of environmentalism up to today and to look forward to the future. The way in which the very notion of climate change has faced such fierce opposition raises the question of whether environmentalism has always been such a politically charged topic or if that is a by-product of today's fractious political climate.
"I have to say it's always been politicized," Kitchell responded. "What's different about climate change is that the issue is so big and so fundamental and so difficult. At one point in the film I talk about how it remains the impossible issue, impossible to deal with and impossible to ignore."
For Kitchell, the scope of "A Fierce Green Fire" became both its biggest challenge and its greatest advantage. By moving from the origins of environmentalism to its present, he hopes to point audiences toward its future as well.
"I'd say what environmentalism is coming to is civilizational transformation; that's the big message. It's not just climate change, it's a much bigger vision," he said. "By the time we come through this change, we will have had to reinvent our civilization and the way we make and do everything to bring this human thing into sustainable balance. That was the theme from the beginning to end, the relationship between humanity and nature. And you don't often get away with making that big of a statement."
-- Mark Olsen, in Park City, Utah
Photo: Mark Kitchell. Credit: Sundance Film Festival