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PBS will mark Earth Day with one-half of a fine environmental documentary

Courtesy of Buffalo State College Archives, Courier Express collection
Local children in Niagara Falls, N.Y., protest toxic contamination of the Love Canal.

Next Tuesday (April 22) is Earth Day, and if you happen to have an hour free at 8 p.m. I recommend, I guess, that you tune your TV to PBS for its premiere showing of “A Fierce Green Fire.”

If that endorsement is half-hearted, it’s because this version of Mark Kitchell’s documentary is but half the movie, more or less.

Starting about a year ago, “A Fierce Green Fire” has knocked around in limited theatrical releases at lengths of 100, 101 and 114 minutes, according to various reviews.

For inclusion in the “American Masters” series, however, it has been trimmed to something under 55 minutes (and also relieved, at least in the promo materials, of its subtitle, “The Battle for a Living Planet).”

What remains is a kind of high-speed, magical history tour of the modern environmentalist movement in which the earth’s protectors usually win, just because they’re right; Richard Nixon is an earnest hero of  unquestioned motives (he gets more time than Gaylord Nelson); and the ongoing struggle to rein in global warming is still too close to call, for reasons too complicated to address.

Perhaps it fairly qualifies as “the first big-picture exploration of the environmental movement” in documentary film, as PBS claims. If so, then I want to hope its successors are not long in coming.

Because what we have here is, at best, a series of admittedly powerful but small-picture probes into all that has changed — and hasn’t — in the half-century or so since modern American environmentalism found its voice.

In the meantime, I’ll just hope that the PBS broadcast and re-broadcasts will rekindle enough interest in “A Fierce Green Fire” that we’ll soon be able to see a full-length director’s cut from Kitchell, whose “Berkeley in the Sixties” (1990) earned a National  Society of Film Critics Award for best documentary (and nomination for same, though no statuette, at the Oscars).

That would be a happy thing, because despite its overall brevity, there is much to like in even the abbreviated “American Masters” version of this project.

Archival footage and fresh recollections

For starters, there is the sheer wealth of archival footage assembled by Kitchell and crew, from decades when not everyone walked around with a pocket-size video camera at the ready.

It’s beyond fascinating to see, up close, the faces of mothers and children in the unfolding agony over Love Canal and its seeping realization that hundreds of households had been poisoned by industrial toxins.

And it’s amazing, too, to be reminded of just how difficult a struggle it was for Lois Gibbs and her neighbors in Niagara Falls, N.Y., to get the Love Canal situation taken seriously, first in Albany and then in Washington.

Gibbs is just one among many partisans whom Kitchell found still available and willing to give present-day perspective on these battles, and what it took to win them.

It’s a key storytelling strength of the film, I think, to render its five pivotal battles through the direct experience of the people who fought them (with supporting narratives delivered by the likes of Robert Redford, Ashley Judd,  Van Jones, Isabelle Allende and Meryl Streep).

Love Canal is the film’s second chapter of five. It’s preceded by the Sierra Club’s successful effort to keep hydroelectric dams out of Grand Canyon (though not Glen Canyon), and followed by the anti-whaling campaign waged as naval warfare by Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Society.

© Greenpeace/Robert Keziere
The crew onboard the ship “Phyllis Cormack” (also called “Greenpeace”) are the pioneers of the green movement who formed the original group that became Greenpeace.

Then comes the resistance of rubber-tappers led by Chico Mendes to industrial-scale deforestation in the Amazon, a nonviolent effort that nevertheless ends with Mendes’ murder just at the moment of triumph.

Finally there is the global-warming piece, which struck me as oddly unfinished, and not just because this struggle lacks the kind of natural endpoint event that can be found in the preceding four narratives.

The importance of getting angry

The not-quite-stated conclusion in the first 45 minutes of “A Fierce Green Fire” is that things have changed for the better environmentally when people got angry about some egregious horror, and stayed angry, and then got organized to fight it.

But in this last section on the looming prospect of global catastrophe — taking up the one environmental threat in which everybody living has a stake, and which nearly everybody understands in terms of its seriousness and what’s required to address it — the film seems to stop in midsentence.

It’s an odd, running-out-of-gas feeling, and the full stop came so abruptly I got up to see if maybe I had to flip the preview DVD over to play a second side.

Then the titles began to roll, and I was feeling highly shortchanged — though also half-tempted to watch the whole thing over again.

But then, I would probably have watched Kitchell’s project at the six-part, six-hour length he has said he originally conceived it.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/15/2014 - 11:39 am.

    Did the presence of one of the Koch brothers on the NYC PBS Board have anything to do with the shortening of this documentary? (I understand that he recently resigned from that Board, because of protests over what he was insisting on there.)
    Their business interests run strongly in opposition to anyone fighting to get the public some knowledge of the environmental disaster that awaits our planet if we don’t stop using fossil fuels.

    Also, my impression of the American Masters series is that each segment is almost 90 minutes long. Why is this one apparently only 55 minutes? Has anyone asked PBS about it?

    For PBS to present something that minimizes our planet’s crisis is breathtaking.

    • Submitted by Ron Meador on 04/15/2014 - 01:10 pm.

      Since you ask, Connie….

      I did ask the WNET publicist handling media for “A Fierce Green Fire” about this abridgement.

      “Not much of a story there,” she said. “It’s just what the PBS Earth Day schedule could accommodate.”

      I also asked if the film might later be aired at full length — if, for example, it proved to be a big hit with PBS viewers — and got no answer.

  2. Submitted by david berg on 04/15/2014 - 01:04 pm.

    how complicated is it?

    Your line ‘and the ongoing struggle to rein in global warming is still too close to call, for reasons too complicated to address.’ leaves me wanting to know what you think the reasons are.

    I hope you are planning on writing another column where you will address those reasons.

    David Berg

  3. Submitted by rolf westgard on 04/16/2014 - 03:12 am.

    Another ‘Gasland’ or ‘Chasing Ice’ ?

    I hope this new film has more substance than its relatives.

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