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Saturday, November 9, 2013

DVD Review: A Fierce Green Fire

A Fierce Green Fire is a documentary which basically tells the history of the environmental movement right up to the present. It is divided into five sections, each section narrated by a different person (though the film does not rely heavily on narration). The first section is narrated by Robert Redford.

The film actually opens with some gorgeous shots of nature – trees, an elephant running, etc. – and then quickly, before we can lose ourselves too much in these beautiful scenes, we are shown smokestacks and fires. And people marching. All of this while The Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” plays.

Robert Redford then tells us, “The environmental movement is about nature versus humanity. It arose at a time when our industrial civilization has grown so powerful it threatens the natural world on which we depend for survival.” Pretty serious stuff, but almost immediately, it is lightened: “But at the beginning you could say it started with ladies’ hats.” Yes, the Audubon Society was founded to try to save certain birds that were being used for plumed hats.

And that is something I truly appreciate about this documentary. While the subject matter couldn’t be more serious, it manages to find some levity and also, more importantly, quite a bit of hope. This isn’t a completely depressing fatalistic documentary, as it chronicles the victories in the environmental movement, giving people hope, and encouraging us that we can effect change.

It also has quite a lot of information. I’ve long considered myself an environmentalist, and there is a good deal here that was completely new to me. The documentary covers a lot of ground (though never feels too rushed), including information on the Sierra Club and other important groups. The Sierra Club’s fight against dams is documented here, including the group’s work to save the Grand Canyon. That campaign got a tremendous response, including a letter from the IRS saying that donations were no longer guaranteed to be tax deductible. And this documentary shows us the letter. Of course that caused more folks to join, and the dams project was dropped. A victory for the Sierra Club.

Seeing the first photos of Earth from space is what prompted a lot of people to become concerned with the environment. And that leads to the first Earth Day, which was founded by Senator Gaylord Nelson. The documentary treats us to footage of Nelson at a press conference, footage of Allen Ginsberg, as well as footage of that famous speech by Civil Rights activist James Farmer, in which he says: “If we do not save the environment, then whatever we do in civil rights or in the war against poverty will be of no meaning because then we will have the equality of extinction.”

Robert Redford tells us, “Twenty million people came out for the first Earth Day, still the largest demonstration ever.”

The second section, narrated by Ashley Judd, is focused on pollution and the creation of the EPA. The information on Love Canal is particularly engrossing, and includes interviews with Lois Gibb as well as footage of the EPA press conference on chromosome study from May 16, 1980.

As upsetting as that information is, the documentary does show the positive outcome. It took a while, but the homeowners were eventually victorious. Then, of course, with the election of that bastard Ronald Reagan, the environmental movement ground to a halt (and turned to grassroots tactics). As is mentioned in the film’s third section, Reagan took away tax credit and subsidy for the alternative energy industry. As Stephanie Mills points out, “Carter had solar collectors on the White House roof, and Reagan took them off.”

The section on Greenpeace is quite moving, and contains amazing (and disturbing) footage regarding the fights to save the whales and the seals.

The documentary’s fourth and fifth sections are on the larger picture, with the fifth section (which is narrated by Meryl Streep) being about climate change. Streep says: “Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call that revealed the impacts of global warming in ways that had not touched people before. In Europe, a heat wave killed seventy thousand…Everything was happening faster than scientists predicted.”

At the end, the film does a good job of showing how we’re all connected. In fact, that is really one of the film’s themes, and even early on shows how the different movements are connected (such as the civil rights movement and the environmental movement).

Bonus Features

The DVD includes a short biography of film director Mark Kitchell (Kitchell also directed the excellent Berkeley In The Sixties, a documentary that was released in 1990). Also, there is a timeline of the environmental movement and an environmental resource guide, both of which are PDF files and can be accessed on your computer.

A Fierce Green Fire was released on DVD on October 1, 2013 through First Run Features.

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