Subtitled The Battle For a Living Planet, Oscar-nominated documentarian Mark Kitchell's A Fierce Green Fire traces the history of environmental activism in America and across the globe. Divided into five chronological acts with names like "Conservation" and "Alternatives," each with its own voice thanks to narrators including Robert Redford and Isabel Allende, A Fierce Green Fire gains most of its considerable power with rare vintage clips and photographs of the movement's watershed moments.
Among the first three acts' highlights are the late David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club in the 1960s, successfully fighting construction of dams in national parks; Lois Gibbs, housewife and community organizer at the toxic dump at Love Canal in the 1970s, literally taking EPA officials hostage in a suburban house while the world watched on TV; and Greenpeace's daring initial confrontations with whalers on the high seas in the mid '70s. Taken as a whole, this material constitutes a needlessly secret history that deserves to find the widest audience possible, especially in schools.
The film's final two acts, focusing on Chico Mendes' union-focused battle to save the Amazon forests (he was assassinated in 1988) and on the global issue of climate change, are more troubling and less satisfying than the first three. But then they have to be: As the environmental movement expands and efforts move from local to global, complex issues of social justice and indigenous rights make every battle harder to fight. Climate change is acknowledged to be an "impossible issue" for activists — impossible to deal with, yet impossible to ignore. A Fierce Green Fire ends on a remarkably hokey and ineffective call for continued grassroots activism. But the minor misstep is easy to forgive. There's just no easy path to a sustainable future. — KEN KORMAN