While never once hiding where he stands on the major environmental issues of our time, director Mark Kitchell attempts to explain how important these problems are in his documentary A Fierce Green Fire, while also spotlighting various people who have been tenacious, smart, and brave enough to make a difference regarding the environment.
The film is broken up into five acts, and begins with a segment narrated by Robert Redford that details the creation of the conservationist organization the Sierra Club. Under the fiery leadership of David Brower, the group became such a political force that they stopped a government project to dam -- and therefore forever alter the topography and ecosystem of -- the Grand Canyon. Right from this opening, Kitchell’s movie presents an old-fashioned, straightforward approach to the material. This is the kind of wide-ranging historical record that was designed to be shown in high-school science or civics classes. Think of it as Environmental Activism 101. That might sound dismissive, but it’s not meant to be in the least; there’s an earnestness about the entire tone of the production that never devolves into dull seriousness.
Additionally, in the two best segments of the film, Kitchell gives us engaging personal stories. The best example of this is the section of A Fierce Green Fire devoted to the story of Lois Gibbs, a mother and resident of the New York neighborhood of Love Canal, who discovered that the high rate of birth defects in her area was being caused by a chemical dump that surrounded their homes. Her struggle to get the governmental to recognize the problem, and then provide a solution, became such a national story that at one point she detained EPA officials who had come to talk with her until the government helped the community relocate. Kitchell interviews Gibbs, and her story puts a human face on one of the most important chapters in the history of environmentalism.
That section leads to a chapter on the history of Greenpeace, from its earliest days of using Vietnam War-era protests to raise consciousness about environmental issues to its hands-on attempts to stop international whaling. The most compelling figure in this part of the film is Paul Watson, one of the co-founders of the organization, who left because the group felt his actions had gone against Greenpeace’s stated antiviolence philosophy. Although it would seem the exploits of these fearless protestors would be the ultimate chance for Kitchell to revel in celebrating the bravest members of the movement, he simply presents their history -- he neither condones nor disavows Watson’s most egregious actions, even if it’s obvious he approves of their results.
That’s telling of the movie’s approach to this controversial material; it’s clear that Kitchell believes something needs to be done, but he wants to offer up examples of people who effectively changed the world’s approach to these problems and let us marvel at their commitment to their cause. The closest the film gets to celebrating a martyr is in the fourth section, which is devoted to Chico Mendes, whose public fight to save the Brazilian rain forest from ranchers led to his being gunned down.
A Fierce Green Fire ends with a too-brief detailing of the global and American responses to climate change. This portion of the movie, narrated by Meryl Streep, brings us up to the modern day, detailing how various international meetings to discuss what steps should be taken in the face of this pending crisis have failed to produce much action in the U.S. It’s a somber note to end on that’s mitigated when Ketchell reveals how many grassroots organizations focused on various aspects of saving the planet -- and therefore humanity -- are active worldwide. You leave the film with a better understanding of how the debate over environmentalism is hardly new, and with the knowledge that -- if you feel strongly about the issues -- you have every opportunity to contribute. A Fierce Green Fire is an unapologetic activist documentary that wisely avoids stridency. leave a comment --Perry Seibert