A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet: Sundance Film Review

Comprehensive overview of the global environmental movement reveals the scope of past accomplishments and the breadth of problems awaiting resolution.

PARK CITY — Environmentalism may just be the largest social movement worldwide – from saving tropical forests to protecting marine life and combating climate change, millions of passionate supporters in nearly every region of the globe are involved in advocacy activities.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mark Kitchell (Berkeley in the Sixties) winningly spans the broad scope of environmental history in this comprehensive doc, connecting its origins with the variety of issues still challenging society today. Broadcast exposure is likely with theatrical release a distinct possibility.

The first hour of the film covers a chronological retrospective of the American environmental movement and from the outset it’s clear we’ve been here before: From John Muir and the Sierra Club to Greenpeace and save the whales, it’s another whirlwind tour of the 20th Century eco-activist agenda. Initially the film’s strengths are in examining the more marginal offshoots, including battles against toxic waste and environmental racism.

An in-depth segment on New York state’s Love Canal neighborhood (built atop 20,000 tons of toxic waste) and community organizer Lois Gibbs, at the time a young mother and still a fiery activist, demonstrates the impact of citizen research and lobbying to affect social change. Sociologist Robert Bullard describes how the marginalization of African-American and impoverished communities exposed to hazardous chemicals motivated ordinary people to assert both their Civil Rights and their rights to healthy living standards in the 80s, leading to the emergence of the environmental justice movement. “There’s no Hispanic air,” says Bullard. “There’s no African-American air. There’s air! And if you breathe air -- and most people I know do breathe air -- then I would consider you an environmentalist.”

Organizing the film into five chapters to highlight specific issues, activists and historical periods helps convey the densely layered content, but the film really excels in the second hour, tracing the internationalization of environmental issues beginning in the 80s and the ascendancy of climate change as the definitive game-changer worldwide.

A profile of murdered Brazilian organizer Chico Mendes, who unified forest communities to oppose ranchers and protect the resources of the Amazon, serves as a reminder that the conflicts over safeguarding the world’s largest tropical forest continue today. Glimpses of the Ghandian-style Chipko “tree-hugger” forest defenders in India, Kenya’s Greenbelt reforestation group and Bolivians opposed to the privatization of freshwater resources in the Andean nation reveal the diversity of global environmental initiatives today.

All of these struggles nearly pale in comparison to climate change, the one unifying issue affecting the entire planet. The ongoing challenge for polluting nations to reach viable, binding reductions to carbon emissions and implement alternatives to fossil fuels has been ongoing for more than 20 years without definitive progress, as indicators of a warming globe continue to proliferate worldwide.

Despite the combative attitude displayed by a noticeable number of experts interviewed, including 92-year-old conservationist Martin Litton (who contends that effective activists need to have “hatred in your heart”), the film’s outlook is rather positive, even if the perspective is much unchanged after more than 50 years. Still primarily the domain of white, middle-class, college-educated men, the movement continues to seek a fully integrated approach to resolving ecological disruption.

Kitchell capably knits together the disparate strands of environmental history with first-person interviews, archival materials and news footage. Top scientists, activists, writers and representatives of leading nonprofit organizations provide both historical perspective and blueprints for future progress to protect the planet. Less attention is given to the expansion of radical environmentalism and the rise and implementation of sustainable development strategies, particularly in poor nations.

A trio of excellent editors assembles an impressive visual package, although the soundtrack’s selection of distracting, sappy songs drains some of the impact. The film’s title originates with a quote by pioneering American conservationist Aldo Leopold.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres

Production company: Whitewater Films

Director-screenwriter: Mark Kitchell

Producer: Mark Kitchell

Executive producer: Marc N. Weiss

Director of photography: Vicente Franco

Music: George Michalski, Sonya Kitchell, Randall  Wallace, Garth Stevenson

Editor: Ken Schneider, Veronica Selver, Jon Beckhardt

Sales: The Film Sales Company

No rating, 110 minutes