New take on the environmental movement from Bolinas native

04/11/2013

It’s Tuesday morning and Mark Kitchell is preparing to pitch an idea for a green museum in San Francisco’s Presidio when he takes a call from a reporter to promote a benefit for his movie on the history of the modern environmental movement.

Mr. Kitchell is a filmmaker—an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker at that, for the 1990 Berkeley in the Sixties—who has made an ambitious kaleidoscopic tribute to the environmental movement premiering in Point Reyes Station this month. He is also a location scout for other film projects, a father and an advocate inspired by his hippie roots as a youth in Bolinas.

His problem is not finding time to film, fund and promote his eco-friendly ventures while being a family man as much as it is the rousing interest in them. “It’s not easy being green,” Mr. Kitchell told the reporter. “We really are the proverbial underground filmmakers, and I wish every newspaper was like the Point Reyes Light.”

But, alas, even though Mr. Kitchell has made and is distributing his film, he still faces an uphill battle promoting it and paying off his remaining debts for A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet, inspired by a book of the same name by former New York Times reporter Philip Shabecoff, a reference to what environmental icon Aldo Leopold said he saw dying in the eyes of a wolf he shot.

Mr. Kitchell is hosting a benefit for the film with two screenings at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station on April 21, after which the film’s direction may be as contested as the prospects for the movement that is the subject of its reportage.

The observation that it is not easy being green is a takeaway on display constantly in the 101-minute film, as is the righteous green fire that animates the characters in the film’s interviews and archival video clips, from the progenitors of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace to citizens like mother-turned-activist Lois Gibbs, who protested disease caused by toxic waste at Love Canal in New York State, and international activists like Chico Mendes and Wangari Maathai.

In the film, Paul Watson, an early Greenpeace activist, recalled looking into the eyes of a harpooned sperm whale. Spermaceti made from the creature was used to lubricate machines that made intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“I said, here we are destroying this incredibly beautiful, intelligent, socially complex creature for the purpose of making a weapon meant for the mass destruction of humanity, and that’s when it came to me like a flash that we’re insane. We’re just totally insane, and from that moment on I decided that I work for whales. I work for seals, I work for sea turtles and fish and seabirds. I don’t work for people.”

Mr. Watson’s indefatigability is matched by several other activists profiled here, including Martin Litton, a strident figure who worked with the Sierra Club and punctuates his sentences with exclamatory noes.

“I was appalled at the idea that there would be development in the Grand Canyon, there would be a dam and it was acceptable. No! My attitude was always, be unreasonable, let’s not be nice. I mean if you don’t have any hatred in your heart, what are you living on?” Mr. Litton asked. “The attitude in that time was we can’t stop progress, we’ve got to consider the needs of society. No! We’ve got to consider the needs of the Earth, let society come second, or let society drop dead. That was our attitude.”

Despite the strong feelings underpinning the movement, Mr. Kitchell highlights some of its faults as well, including a disorganized effort that often missed the big picture, from social justice issues to climate change. Bill McKibben, the activist, describes global warming as “too big an issue for the environmental movement to take on” in the film, but other speakers are less bleak.

“There’s no question in my mind that, as people who care deeply about the environment, we keep looking for love in all the wrong places,” said Paul Hawken, the environmental entrepreneur. “And that’s from our political leaders. If we haven’t learned yet then we should get it now: this is not going to be top down.”

All told it took Mr. Kitchell and his team some 11 years, off and on, to the finish the movie. It is organized in five acts (E.O. Wilson, the entomologist, told him six acts would be unwatchable and would not be funded) narrated by celebrities including Robert Redford (who discusses conservation), Ashley Judd (pollution), Van Jones (alternatives), Isabel Allende (global issues) and Meryl Streep (climate change), a “get” that will no doubt benefit the film’s marketability.

Mr. Kitchell, who studied under public-access-television promoter George C. Stoney at the New York University, said his primary goal is that the film educates, inspires, recruits and mobilizes people for environmental activism. On whether film can inspire people to feel empathy and act, Mr. Kitchell says, “it has the potential to, and I’ve probably spent my life working towards that and wondering if it’s true or if it’s an illusion.”

What film cannot do is lead “a charge out of the theater,” he said. Nonetheless, if it does create a rah-rah moment for Point Reyes Station viewers, Mr. Kitchell will be on hand, answering questions after both of the screenings.

In a way, Mr. Kitchell says he is keeping the hippie dream alive to this day. “My hair is short, I don’t smoke dope anymore, I’m still working hard, but our values are in the right place and we’re doing good work,” he said, noting his wife’s involvement with the Occupy protest movement and his daughter’s neo-bohemian worldview.


Screenings take place April 21 at 4 and 7 p.m. at the Dance Palace Community and Cultural Center. Tickets are $14, $12 for seniors and $8 for students, and can be purchased online at dancepalace.org or at the door.