News Column

Oscar-nominated documentarian examines environmental history with latest film

October 25, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 25--It wasn't long after film director Mark Kitchell received an Academy Award nomination for his 1990 documentary "Berkeley in the Sixties" that he went searching for the subject of his next film.

Several years later, he found it: the history of the environmental movement. Work on the film began in earnest more than a decade ago. The result is the documentary "A Fierce Green Fire."

The title comes from environmental pioneer Aldo Leopold, who once described seeing a "fierce green fire" in the eyes of a wolf he had just shot. The incident proved to be the awakening of his environmental consciousness.

The documentary is a well-researched and sophisticated treatment of the environment movement splayed out over five acts -- from the movement's nascent days, when Sierra Club leader David Brower fought dam-building projects in the Grand Canyon, to author Bill McKibben's decades-long crusade to raise awareness about climate change.

In the Sacramento region, the only screening of the 114-minute film is at 7 tonight at the Sierra Center's 24th Street Theatre. Kitchell will be on hand for a discussion and question-and-answer session after the screening.

In making the film, Kitchell is joining a growing bandwagon of directors who are casting their lens on the environment.

But unlike other documentaries -- like Josh Fox's 2011 Oscar nominated "Gasland," which intimately plumbs Fox's experience finding out about the process of hydraulic fracturing -- Kitchell decided to take a big-picture approach to "A Fierce Green Fire."

Key to the film's overview of environmentalist history is the use of archival material, such as the scenes that detail the Love Canal disaster, in which residents of the New York state community come to learn that their various health ailments were the result of a toxic-waste site buried underneath their homes.

Kitchell compiled material from almost 100 archival sources. "I wanted a big-picture synthesis of these movements, and I wanted to try and find the meaning of them," he said via phone from his home in San Francisco.

The film, which cost $500,000 to make, was no stretch for Kitchell. A fervency for the environment runs in the blood, he said.

Kitchell's father, architect Peter Kitchell, and stepmother were involved in preserving Marin County's Bolinas Lagoon and the movement to stop freeway construction in San Francisco.

The documentary project proved so germane to Kitchell that he's in the works on a related documentary -- tentatively titled "California Green Fire" -- that will deal with the environmental movement in the state. Kitchell said the documentary would explore three facets of that tale: the saving of the redwoods, pollution and climate change and the rise of organic agriculture in the state.

He's pushing forward with the second documentary even though he fears his current one may get lost amid the number of documentaries being produced these days.

"What if the film doesn't get noticed, especially after having spent a decade making it?" he said.

"When we started in 2001, not much had been made since 1991," said Kitchell. "Now there is a lot of them, partly because the media used now to make films has become so cheap and everyone is doing it."

Indeed, the current era can be called a golden one for the documentary film. Cannes Film Festival market director Jerome Paillard has said that documentary films now account for 16 percent of the Cannes film market -- twice the figure from five years ago. The popularity of the films has not gone unnoticed in the marketplace. Netflix recently announcement that it will be producing documentaries, too.

The most well-known environmental film of recent memory -- "An Inconvenient Truth," released in 2006 -- not only brought climate change into the public discourse, it made a tidy amount of money. The film -- which cost roughly $1 million to make -- earned nearly $50 million domestic and international box-office sales.

"Documentaries carry credibility at a time when mainstream media are seen as corrupt or corporate-biased," said Patricia Aufderheide, author of the book "Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction."

"They are relatively low-cost, in comparison with other options. Most nonprofits, as well as corporations, now have communications teams that are integrated into strategic planning for any effort, and documentary expression is part of that."

In an effort to make sure his film does not languish, Kitchell is touring it around the country. In some cases, as is the case with tonight's screening, Kitchell is paying for the theater rental out of pocket, which has pushed him to suggest attendees make a donation at the door.

Aside from the risk of the film going unnoticed, Kitchell also fears the documentary will be seen only by those predisposed to the film's message. "I don't want this to be the kind of thing where we just screen the film on the coast and end up just preaching to the choir," he said.

To avoid that, Kitchell has been screening the film in conservative cities and universities. Some screenings have been in places where climate change is not altogether an accepted notion.

One screening took place at Campbell University, a Baptist university in Buies Creek, N.C. The screening at the conservative campus proved to be illuminating for some, said Campbell University English professor Sherry Truffin, who had invited Kitchell to campus.

The film was shown to a crowd of 300 students from many majors. "It was interesting -- a lot of the students were really surprised. Some were shocked by it," Truffin said.

The movie ruffled some feathers, the professor said, but many students she spoke with afterward were struck by the film's explanation of what happened at Love Canal. "They had no concept of that, and many of them related to me the film changed their view of the environmental movement," she said.

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(c)2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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