Ardently passionate and naturally provocative, this eco-chronicle has the informality of an Occupy encampment, the militancy of anti-whaler Paul Watson and a genuine sense of history.

Ardently passionate and naturally provocative, the eco-chronicle “A Fierce Green Fire” has the informality of an Occupy encampment, the militancy of anti-whaler Paul Watson and a genuine sense of history. What it lacks is polish, which is charming in and of itself but will limit opportunity for widespread exposure, especially in its natural habitat, public television. Ratcheting up the narration and dialing down the music could make for a bombshell docu on environmentalism; screening at recent Sundance fest seemed premature.

There’s no denying the film’s power, however, as its charts the birth pains of the environmental movement in America, from the days of John Muir and the infancy of the Sierra Club to the kinds of early controversies and conflicts that would characterize the movement from decade to decade. These include the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir controversy, which split environmentalists into preservationist and resource-management camps; the Sierra Club fight over Dinosaur National Park in the ’50s and the eventual ouster of the organization’s president David Brower; the birth of Greenpeace and Watson’s eventual departure for the less genteel Sea Shepherd movement. For all the supposed tree-hugging, the various branches of the eco movement have historically roiled with drama, and helmer Mark Kitchell (“Berkeley in the Sixties”) makes the most of it.

“A Fierce Green Fire,” which is indeed both fierce and green, does suffer from Kitchell’s narration, which fails to match the narrative oomph of his story. Likewise, some overly predictable music choices, such as Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” (“Save paradise/Put up a parking lot”), which in this context borders on parody. Overcoming these factors to some degree are the sweep of Kitchell’s film, its good-natured sensibility and the resounding history it recounts.

That history includes one of the docu’s more fascinating sequences: the Carter-era fight over New York’s Love Canal, a neighborhood built over 20,000 tons of toxic water. That fight was led by a homemaker named Lois Gibbs, who reflects the pic’s principal theme: the grassroots nature of environmental activism and its roots among everyday people. Furthering this notion is Kitchell’s profile of murdered organizer Chico Mendes, whose work in the Amazon among workers for the rubber industry unified forest communities to oppose ranchers and protect resources. Elsewhere, the helmer focuses on Gandhi-inspired protesters in India, who throw themselves in front of developers by literally hugging trees.

Production values are what one might expect, given the film’s heavily archival nature, but the editing by Ken Schneider, Veronica Selver and Jonathan Beckhardt is topnotch.

A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet

Production

A Mark Kitchell presentation in association with Whitewater Films. Produced by Kitchell. Executive producer, Marc N. Weiss. Directed, written by Mark Kitchell, from the book "A Fierce Green Fire" by Philip Shabecoff.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Vicente Franco; editors, Ken Schneider, Veronica Selver, Jonathan Beckhardt; music, George Michalski, Randall Wallace, Garth Stevenson, Sonya Kitchell; re-recording mixer, Dan Olmsted; associate producer, Tamara Badgley-Horowitz. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 25, 2012. Running time: 119 MIN.

With

Paul Watson, Lois Gibbs, Robert Bullard, Martin Litton. Narrator: Mark Kitchell.
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