Arts & Events

FILM REVIEW: A Fierce Green Fire Brightens the Screens

By Gar Smith
Friday March 22, 2013 - 12:35:00 PM
Lois Gibbs takes EPA officials hostage.
Lois Gibbs takes EPA officials hostage.

Now playing at the Shattuck Landmark Theater, A Fierce Green Fire has been a long time coming but it's worth the wait. 


Berkeley filmmaker Mark Kitchell's follow-up to his justly acclaimed documentary, Berkeley in the Sixties, has effectively captured the crusades of the modern environmental movement over a span of five decades. The film's compendium of uber-eco clips ranges from the years leading up to the first Earth Day to the current struggles over mountaintop mining, oil spills, climate change and the nuclear threat. 

Having seen earlier versions of the Fierce Green work-in-progress over the years (most recently, a screening a few years back at the David Brower Center), I held some doubts whether a film that focused on so many "battles from the past" would find an audience with the front-liners of the Occupy Generation. I no longer have those reservations. A Fierce Green Fire excels at evoking both the initial optimism and the enduring passion of the Green Movement's first 50 years. 

Even though I had seen most of the footage before (and even participated in several of the campaigns), the finished film still reached me emotionally. I was alternately enraged anew at the careless arrogance of the despoilers and I felt my pulse racing with each new audacious act of grassroots resistance. 

The audience at the landmark clearly felt the same. Several times the theater was filled with the anguished groans of the viewers. And more than once, the theater rang with cheers and applause. 

While this last and final version of A Fierce Green Fire features a chorus of celebrity narrators — Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Isabelle Allende, Van Jones and Ashley Judd — it is the voices of the activists that carry the message home. 

The film unfolds in five acts: the formative battles of the 1960s; the pollution and population ballets of the 1970s; the nonviolent activism of Greenpeace and the ship-sinking antics of the Sea Shepherd; the global campaigns in the Amazon, Africa and India; the growing climate campaigns that began with the historic Rio Summit — only to be followed by repeated refusals by the US and other industrialized Polluter Nations to accept binding reductions in greenhouse gases. 

Despite the overall shadow of growing — and possibly irreversible — global doom, Kitchell's movie can still give an audience something to cheer about. 

Who can't get behind the families of Love Canal ? Faced with a wall of official indifference at the growing evidence of an entire community poisoned by long-buried chemicals, the residents finally took history into their own hands. When a team of EPA inspectors arrived for a perfunctory visit, local mothers and children blocked the doors and took the bureaucrats hostage. Local activist Lois Gibbs put down her megaphone long enough to place a phone call to the Washington demanding action. It worked. The Carter Administration acted. 

And there are the women of India's Chipko movement, protecting their threatened forests from loggers' chainsaws by hugging the trees with their bodies. And we revisit Brazilian rubber-tapper Chico Mendes whose haunted face reveals the awareness of man who understands that he has been marked for death. 

The film celebrates the daredevils of Greenpeace, who pumped adrenalin into the movement with decades of audacious stunts — blocking undersea pipes gushing pollution, parachuting from atop a nuclear cooling towers and confronting whaling ships. (Who was that unnamed Greenpeace activist who can be seen jumping from a speeding Zodiac onto the back of a harpooned whale as it is hauled up the blood-washed gates of a Japanese whaling ship?). 

One of the many profound observations offered in Kitchell's film comes from Paul Watson. A founding member of Greenpeace, Watson carried direct action to the next level aboard a Sea Shepherd fleet that set sail to intercept — and sink — whaling vessels on the open seas and in their home ports. 

Watson recalled the day he was aboard a Greenpeace zodiac that had placed itself between a pod of whales and a Russian whaler. Ignoring the danger, the Russians fired and the harpoon shot past, only a few feet above the unprotected activists. Everyone on the boat heard the female whale scream. A male that went to her aid was also shot. As he was dying, the whale rolled over and one huge eye locked with Watson's eyes. 

"Why were these whales being killed?" Watson wondered. He discovered it was because their bodies were being tapped for a special lubricant that was essential for the operation of intercontinental ballistic missiles! 

"So we were killing whales to make it possible to build nuclear missiles that could destroy millions of humans!" That's when it hit him, Watson concluded: "We humans are insane!" 

A Fierce Green Fire serves as a touchstone and a reminder that many of Earth's people still harbor some sanity. Once again, we're faced with another bloody chapter in the ancient contest between The Many and The Few — The Givers and the Takers. Only this time, there's a world to lose.