Academy Award-nominee Mark Kitchell, a longtime environmentalist and filmmaker has distilled the progress of the climate change and the environmental movement into a clear, concise and captivating meditation for Earth Day. A Fierce Green Fire looks at the progress we’ve made and how to keep the fire burning, in a fresh format with narration by Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende and Meryl Streep. Mrs. Robinson’s Anne Brodie spoke with Kitchell from his home in San Francisco.
An avalanche on Mt. Everest killed 13 people last week. Was that attributable to climate change?
If it was wet snow, yes. They talk about the glaciers melting into drinking water for 40 million people that are a significant portion of water from the Himalayas. That’s a disaster in the making, it means the water rises and floods out the people at the mouth of the Ganges and then it’s gone and then there isn’t any more.
The film is divided into Acts, charting the environmental movement; it’s a brilliant approach.
We had the idea for a six part series and saw E.O. Wilson the great biologist and he said we’d never get funding and no one would watch. And he’s written books as fat as dictionaries and slim popular volumes and he knows the difference. He suggested picking five of the most dramatic and important point, a story and a character, and I saw later that each story was emblematic of an era or phase of the movement. I was motivated by various things like environment and justice and earth day and climate change and the arc of the movement appeared.
I remember in school picking up garbage from roadsides and that was the first I knew of the “green” movement. How effective have grassroots actions been?
I certainly remember the original Earth Day. I was a senior in high school and I did a report on phosphates, detergents choking the Great Lakes. There have been tremendous improvements thanks to grassroots activism. We cleaned the air and water and saved land and got rid of poisonous chemicals. They stopped toxic waste dumps and any new ones for 30 years. The manufacturing processes changed, McDonald stopped using polystyrene clamshells, and we saw the consciousness change. Everybody now is aware of the environmental concerns to some extent or another. But it’s hard to make the move from conscious change to action when the goodies are on the side of endless consumption of resources. We need to get people out of their cars and one of our congressmen was talking about pulling his “cold, dead hands off his SUV steering wheel”. It may look different in California and as Amy Levins says it’s like watching “dinosaurs pitching dinosaur poo” and by that she means oil products.
Like the song that opens the film says so brilliantly, Time Has Come Today.
It’s the Chambers Brothers from 1968. Aren’t those lyrics spooky? [Sings – Now the time has come (Time) There’s no place to run (Time) I might get burned up by the sun (Time) But I had my fun (Time).]
As you progressed through the filmmaking process and shot around the world, were you encouraged or discouraged?
We wanted to move from white men doing conservation and bring in people of colour, working class women and hippies and go to the third worlds and progress to include worldwide grassroots ecology and Europe’s efforts and the fight to save the Amazon. We saw a lot that was encouraging.
Are students protesting as effectively now as when the movement started?
We’ve done 300 grassroots screenings all over the country, on campuses and in colleges and it varies from place to place but I see a lot of students who are interested in this, and even pursuing it as their avocation and vocation. I see a lot of people who get it and to whom it’s the most important thing in their lives.
Mark Kitchell: An Inconvenient Truth was an important historical event and it really turned the discussion about climate change. Nothing had done until that point. It’s amazing those 90’s were filled with deniers. And an Inconvenient Truth brought people back to facing the realities pretty quickly. It was the exception to the rule and the rule being that environmentally themed films and media have a hard time finding a real audience. We’ve even suffered from that. But we are thrilled we’re getting a national broadcast on American Masters for PBS on Earth Day. It’s the best environmental slot in US television and it’s a prestigious series, so we finally get out of the ghetto.
Kitchell’s 25-year old daughter joined us and had this to say about the movement and her generation, our children and grandchildren.
I think my generation is very concerned about these issues but I do think there are some things in the way of them getting out and fighting, an obsession with Twitter and social media, and I personally think my generation is going out into a bad job market with unprecedented debt. All these things get in the way of being able to throw down for the cause, and I think that applies to a lot of young people.
There is an enormous wave of environmental art coming out way, Disneynature for the animals, documentaries on food supply, and the politics of environmental issues?
Celia: I have mixed feelings about it. It’s a systemic problem and a lot of media doesn’t get at the root cause. It talks about the problems but there is a limit to how much good it can accomplish if it doesn’t address the root cause. An Inconvenient Truth was shocking to people and an excellent tool and I think the film set records for how much a doc could gross, but still it didn’t really move the needle on climate.
Airs on PBS on Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22 at 9 p.m. Check here for local listings.