Documenting the environmental movement

With “A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle For A Living Planet,” showing Sept. 19 in Sonoma, writer/director Mark Kitchell (“Berkeley in the Sixties”) traces the history of the environmental movement. The documentary examines pivotal examples of grassroots and global activism spanning 50 years, from conservation to climate change.

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, is narrated by Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, among others. It will be shown on Thursday, September 19, 7 p.m. at the Sonoma Valley Grange, located at 18627 Hwy.12 in Boyes Hot Springs. Admission is free; donations encouraged. Presented by Transition Sonoma Valley in partnership with the Sonoma Ecology Center and the Sonoma Valley Grange.

Sun: Why this topic?
Mark Kitchell: Like “Berkeley in the Sixties,” my previous work which has become one of the defining films about the protest movements, “A Fierce Green Fire started with the idea that a big-picture synthesis of environmentalism was needed. It’s the biggest movement the world has ever seen, yet so broad and diffuse that we lack a larger sense of what it was about. This film is meant to explore the historical meaning of he environmental movement, where we’ve come from and where we’re heading.

Sun: How did you manage that, and in about 100 minutes?
MK: In making the film we had two big concerns. One was what to include and what to leave out. The second was shaping the film – how to connect the diverse parts, structure it all into a cohesive and coherent story, find the arc of the environmental movement. The first iteration of this film was a six-part series. After a few years of trying to launch it, Edward O. Wilson, eminent conservation biologist and advisor to the film, told me we were never going to get funding for something so big And if we did, no one would watch it. He suggested a smaller film that focuses on five of the most important and dramatic events and people. That proved to be the key.

Sun: What were those historic turning points?
MK: Those five main stories – David Brower and the Sierra Club halting dams in the Grand Canyon; Lois Gibbs and the people of Love Canal battling 20,000 tons of toxic waste; Paul Watson and Greenpeace saving the whales; Chico Mendes and the rubbertappers saving the Amazon forest; and, because what else could we end on, the 20-year struggle to deal with climate change – are emblematic of strands and eras of environmentalism. So we built the acts into an hourglass shape. Each begins wide, with origins and context. Next we narrow in on the main story. Then they open up again, to explore ramifications and evolution.

Sun: The project has evolved as well.
MK: The film went through two rounds of shooting interviews, gathering archival material, scripting and editing a rough-cut. By May of 2010 we had a first cut of the full film. It was only upon acceptance to the Sundance Film Festival that finishing the film came together.

Sun: You’ve said that the world is still waiting for the environmental movement’s defining film. Is this it?
MK: I hope we succeeded in capturing that big picture synthesis of the environmental movement. How well we explored the meanings of environmentalism and how useful it is going forward remain to be seen. But it’s exciting to see the world taking interest. It’s time for that next step of the environmental journey.

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