Gail Mallimson takes a hard look at land-use issues on San Bruno Mountain.

Mallimson surveys 'Edge of the Wild' on San Bruno Mountain

Michael Fox September 8, 2010

One of the first places Gail Mallimson visited when she moved to San Francisco 15 years ago was San Bruno Mountain. “I came here because I wanted to live where nature was more accessible to me,” she said. “When I went and hiked there, coming from New York City, the fact that such wild nature could exist 10 minutes from my house was kind of jaw dropping. It’s what I love about living here.” Mallimson’s affection toward and familiarity with San Bruno Mountain is the catalyst for her debut documentary, The Edge of the Wild, which eschews the idealism of most environmental or nature films for a 21st-century pragmatism.

“A lot of what you see in the film is environmentalists who are changing the way we as Americans relate to nature,” Mallimson explains. “It used to be, ‘Nature is best left untouched.’ The truth is at this point in time there is no wild nature on our planet that has been untouched by human hands. Since we are touching nature, we need to create new ways to relate to the land and steward the land. It’s not just about making change on a political level but about making change in the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens, and reconstructing our role as stewards of wild lands.”

In the early 1980s, a developer announced plans to build thousands of homes and two million square feet of office space on San Bruno Mountain. However, the proposed construction would decimate the habitat of the Mission Blue butterfly, which was protected by the Endangered Species Act. In a precedent-setting amendment to the Act known as the San Bruno Mountain Habitat Conservation Plan, Congress permitted the developer to proceed with his blueprint (and wipe out the purple flowering plants that attracted the Mission Blue) in exchange for conserving other parts of the mountain.

“The plan on San Bruno Mountain, which is the first in the country, is almost 30 years old,” Mallimson noted. “In 2012 it’s up for renewal. It originally was construed as a kind of experiment because land restoration at that point was, I’m not sure whether to call it a business or a science; it was a little of both. Little had been done with habitat restoration anywhere. Now it’s been 30 years and there hasn’t been any comprehensive look at this plan or any other plan to see if it’s worked. That’s a lot of the impetus for my film, to look at it now that it’s played out and ask, Has this policy actually benefited the endangered species?”

Mallimson sounds remarkably objective, but I think we can infer where her sympathies lie. Here’s a clue: The eight-minute trailer she cut  gives ample voice to a San Bruno resident determined to head off the next cluster of McMansions on the ridge. Mallimson reports that she’s recently expanded the doc’s focus to the Mount Diablo area, where a member of the nonprofit Save Mount Diablo is taking advantage of the depressed land prices to buy huge blocks with money from donors, grants and the local habitat conservation plan.

“It’s probably not going to be the most accessible film in the world,” Mallimson said with a loud laugh. “A lot of what I’m doing is trying to distill something that has a lot of scientific complexity that ordinary people—ordinary people like myself—can understand. One thing I’m striving for aesthetically is in the past, when people have made films about beautiful places in nature, the footage is often shot in this way that underlines the attitude that nature is something noble and pristine and untouched by humans. I’m trying to shoot in a way that conveys the actual experience of being in that place, almost a subjective view of it.”

Mallimson is an editor by trade, but out of financial necessity she’s also handling most of the camera duties on The Edge of the Wild. She does hire pros like Fawn Yacker from time to time to shoot interviews, but Mallimson knows how to handle a camera: She was a still photographer before she started taking video classes in grad school at NYU. That said, she confessed that it’s one thing to describe the look and feel that she’s after, and another to nail it.

“I grew up watching nature videos like everybody else did,” Mallimson offered. “It’s always a challenge when I’m out in the field that the footage looks personal rather than lofty—in it, rather than shot from above. It means disrupting the audience’s expectations to an extent, but my idea is to make sure it does not look like a Ken Burns film.”

Mallimson has been working on The Edge of the Wild for three years, her pace hampered (as most nonfiction filmmakers will appreciate) by a lack of money.

“In my research, I found there was very little funding specifically for environmental films,” she related. “There was much more in the documentary film category than the environmental film category. Most of the money out there for environmental issues seemed to be earmarked for directly working with environmental groups, not creating media about the environment.”

Such large and well-established national groups as Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund might be potential supporters, but Mallimson is apprehensive about the strings that may be attached to the money.

“I am wary of becoming a tool for someone else’s message,” she says. “It’s a subject that’s complex and multifaceted, and I am sort of wary of joining with a group that may have an agenda of their own.”

Mallimson will shoot The Edge of the Wild this winter and into the spring with an eye on beginning postproduction next summer. Ideally, the finished film would screen in Washington, D.C., for an audience of Congressmen, Congresswomen and their legislative aides, though Mallimson is targeting a general audience.

“The goal is not to get people to sign a petition and change the law,” she declared. “The intention is to get people to think about how they relate to nature and diversity and our natural resources in the country. We can’t afford to have our white gloves on when it comes to nature anymore.”

Notes From the Underground
The party’s over for this summer’s art house hits. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and I Am Love exited S.F. theaters last Thursday after 12 and 10 weeks, respectively. Winter’s Bone  closes its 12-week run this Thursday.… A retrospective of Lise Swenson’s film work since 1983 unspools this Friday, September 10, at 323 Gallery on Potrero Hill.… Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel appear with Speaking In Tongues at the JCC on September 15 and the Bernal Heights branch of the SFPL on September 22, ahead of the doc’s September 26 KQED broadcast; the film is currently streaming in an unprecedented three languages—English, Spanish and Chinese—on PBS's site until September 17.

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