Mark Baumer’s awful death at age 33 received more media attention than the protest that he was engaged in at the time, a bold months-long undertaking that some would call crazy. The symbolism of that death is inescapable: While walking barefoot across the United States to call attention to the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, he was struck by a gas-guzzling SUV. It was a violent end to an exceptionally creative life. Julie Sokolow’s clear-eyed documentary celebrates that life in a no-frills way that suits its subject, a man who discarded not merely his shoes, but also the trappings and constraints of the contemporary rat race.
The poet-activist left behind a vast trove of material — he was prolific on social media and the author of several self-published books. Director-editor Sokolow offers glimpses of his performance-oriented brand of absurdism, but her focus is the video diary of Baumer’s 2016-17 trip. She interweaves his variously ecstatic, exhausted, anguished and goofy dispatches from the road with family photos, home movies and new interviews with the people who were closest to him.
Baumer’s childlike energy takes some getting used to and can verge on the off-putting (Andy Kaufman’s name has been invoked to describe his shouty style). Ranting about carbon or reveling in a pretty roadside view, he’s an ever-shifting combination of guileless and smart. Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story can’t quite explain or contain him, and that’s its beauty. At film’s end, Baumer’s still something of an enigma, but his sincerity and his inspirational effect on others — not only those who knew him, but also people who followed his adventures online — couldn’t be more apparent.
Setting out from Providence, Rhode Island, the Maine native begins his “Barefoot Across America” project in October 2016, and his journey parallels the presidential election. (An earlier cross-country walk, in 2010 and in shoes, goes unmentioned.) Again, you don’t need to look hard to find symbolic resonance in this story: The 100th day of Baumer’s trek — the day of his last video postings — is the day of science-denying Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Baumer is, like many Americans, shocked and dismayed by the electoral results. Recording himself on his phone, he declares with typical directness: “The United States of America just elected a person who does not care about the future of humanity on this planet. He does not believe in protecting the earth.” What sets Baumer apart is the way he moves instantly from despair to a call for action: “We have to do it ourselves,” he says as he keeps walking. “We’re on our own.”
The purpose of his walk — over fields, dirt paths and, most often, the narrow shoulders of highways — is to raise money for a small grassroots group of anti-fracking activists, to spread the word about environmental crises and solutions, and to showcase the climate-impact benefits of a plant-based diet. His delight over an unadorned banana or a can of garbanzos is a running theme in his videos. A few cows he encounters apparently don’t need the social media evidence to recognize a sympathetic vegan.
On a more personal level, Baumer’s walk is a vision quest. There are tough and challenging days. When, in the late going, Baumer meets a group of pipeline-expansion protesters in Florida who are living off the corporate grid, he feels a strong, much-needed human connection and a renewed sense of purpose — not just for the walk but, his father believes, for his life itself.
Sokolow, who never met Baumer, balances the intense energy of his in-the-moment experiences with the quiet retrospective commentary of this only child’s nature-loving parents, Mary and Jim; his girlfriend, poet Ada Smailbegovi?; and friends, among them fellow writers and activists. Their interviews trace the basic contours of the biography, and at times that telling could have used more detail. But from the opening quote that frames Baumer’s story with his hyperawareness of the shortness and precariousness of life, Barefoot builds surely toward a keen feeling of loss as well as one of awakening.
On more than one occasion in the film, Baumer makes clear that he understands precisely the sort of danger he’s making himself vulnerable to, even in his reflective high-visibility vest. As much as he loved life, it wouldn’t be putting too fine a point on it to hear notes of destiny and sacrifice in his mission. That he died at age 33 adds another level of metaphor. Sometimes he provokes worry, but there’s something thrilling about seeing him shoeless in the middle of Times Square, defiant and free, the Fool who might be wiser than any of us. And beneath the tirades and the silliness, the worry he feels runs deep. At one point in his odyssey, as cars rocket past him, Baumer says to his unseen audience, “It feels like everyone is going too fast.”
Production company: Animal
Director-screenwriter-editor: Julie Sokolow
Producers: Olivia Vaughn, Danny Yourd
Executive producers: Michael Killen, Kathy Dziubek, Russ Dewolf
Director of photography: John Pope
Composer: Ryan Will Stewart