Shifting landscapes: Mark Kitchell ("Berkeley in the Sixties") and crew (Betsy Bayha, archivist, left, and Jon Beckhardt, one of the editors, right) are creating a new documentary about the environmental movement. (Not pictured, editor Veronica Selver)

Kitchell on Another Hot Topic with Environmental Movement Doc

Michael Fox March 24, 2009

Mark Kitchell’s Oscar-nominated Berkeley in the Sixties (1990) masterfully reclaimed a crucial period in history from revisionist neo-cons. His current project, an ambitious summation of the environmental movement, should encounter substantially less resistance from the Right. Perhaps that’s asking too much, given the die-hard "global warming is a hoax" crowd’s ability to use mainstream pundits (George Will, among others) to blow their smoke. The greater impediment to Kitchell’s doc, frankly, is the surge in films about climate change. "When I started out the field was pretty wide open," he ruefully notes.

That was six years ago, but Kitchell took a three-year hiatus to raise three daughters and make a commissioned film (Integral Yoga) for the California Institute of Integral Studies. The original impetus for his history of environmentalism was a lengthy stint in Los Angeles; he finally decided to abandon "the promise of working on bad television for low pay," he says with a chuckle.

The film has five acts: the conservation movement of the 1960s; the ’70s focus on pollution (sparked by Love Canal); radical environmentalism, Greenpeace and the campaign to save the whales; the international effort from 1988-92 to halt the destruction of the Amazon, with the attendant furor over biodiversity and the extinction crisis; and global climate change. If that sounds like a lot of ground to cover in 90 or a hundred minutes, you’re right. "I may say, ‘The hell with it. Go to three hours.’ But I could get Berkeley in the Sixties into two hours and I think I can get this into two," Kitchell declares from his offices in the Thoreau Center for Sustainability in the Presidio.

Kitchell sees a shift over five decades of environmental awareness and activism from specific causes to a vague, nebulous condition that doesn’t inspire outrage or marches. "Now the issues are so big, how are you supposed to address them? You can’t go out and protest against global warning. Global warming is the issue that ate the movement. It’s so big and so important that everything else pales in comparison, and the movement found that hard to deal with."

Of the 30 interviews he plans to tape, Kitchell has 15 in the can, Of course, as with his first major film, archival footage is a central element. "Berkeley in the Sixties was so concentrated, it was built on three local TV stations and a dozen or more filmmakers," Kitchell recalls. "Here an archival search is an order of magnitude or two orders of magnitude larger." Kitchell plans to draw on the Sierra Club library, nature photographer/conservationist Eliot Porter’s magnificent work (exemplified by his 1963 book, The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado) and the extensive ’70s EPA still-photo project Documerica.

The challenge for environmental documentaries set on inciting people to action, from An Inconvenient Truth to Franny Amstrong’s The Age of Stupid (screening in the upcoming 52nd SFIFF), is to provoke urgency but not hopelessness. "The dance of hope and despair, that’s my shorthand for it," Kitchell says wryly. "We’ll do some version of the dance. I’m trying not to be hectoring. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do a history, because it would be a frame that would allow the audience to step back a little. A little cooler, a little more distance, [so] the audience would find [it] more appealing."

By this point, you might be wondering why we’ve withheld the name of the film. "For years I’ve been searching for a title and just calling it ‘The Environmental History Project,’" Kitchell says. "On the spur of the moment for a grant proposal, I latched onto ‘A Fierce Green Fire.’ The problem is there is Steve Dunsky and Steven Most’s film called Green Fire about [conservationist and writer] Aldo Leopold. It’s a messy situation," Kitchell says with a laugh. "They were there first and it’s their guy, but I may not let that stop me."

Kitchell and editors Veronica Selver (who cut Berkeley in the Sixties) and Jon Beckhardt plan to have a rough cut by June.They’re aiming to finish the film by Earth Day (in April) of 2010, but recognize that’s optimistic. "We would have to have such good luck with funding, so chances are it’ll slip," Ketchell concedes.

Notes from the Underground
Smush Media’s Gerlayn Pezanoski and Jennifer Steinman each corralled audience awards at SXSW, Pezanoski’s Mine for Documentary Feature and Steinman’s Motherland in the Emerging Visions category. Mine clips will screen along with excerpts from new work by other local filmmakers at the next SFFS Film Arts Forum April 6. … The American Cinematheque’s 11th annual Film Noir Festival, co-programmed by Noir City heavy Eddie Muller, unspools April 2-19 at the Egyptian Theatre in L.A. … Heddy Honigmann’s 2006 masterwork, Forever, hits DVD shelves Apr. 21. Bonus features include the 30-minute onstage interview critic John Anderson conducted with the director the night she received the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award at the 2007 S.F. International Film Festival.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.