An Interview with Filmmaker Mark Kitchell

Award Winning filmmaker Mark Kitchell has re-released his films, offering the opportunity for fresh looks at his well-loved classics: Berkeley in the Sixties, which was nominated for an Academy Award, won top honors and is one of the defining films about the protest movements that shook America during the 1960s; A Fierce Green Fire is a big-picture exploration of the environmental movement, grassroots and global activism spanning five decades from conservation to climate change. Evolution of Organic, which is the story of the organic agriculture movement, told by those who built it. You can watch the films by visiting Mark’s website, and also watch trailers, deleted scenes and bonus material on his YouTube Channel.

NOTE FROM KENNY AUSUBEL, CEO & CO-FOUNDER OF BIONEERS: I first met Mark Kitchell in the later 1980’s when we were both on the film festival circuit. He was premiering his landmark feature documentary “Berkeley in the ‘60s” while I was premiering my feature doc “Hoxsey: How Healing Becomes a Crime”. I was blown away by his exceptional film and filmmaking. On top of that, he was a lovely human being who was in the game for all the right reasons.

Mark has gone on to produce an authentically iconic body of work that is seamlessly aligned with Bioneers world. It includes “A Fierce Green Fire,” another deeply thoughtful, evergreen film chronicling the origins and evolution of the environmental movement, and then “The Evolution of Organic”, which is the first-hand account of the birth and growth of the organic movement by the true visionary creators.

Mark has perfect pitch for choosing not only subjects of enduring importance, but also for masterful storytelling. I’ve watched each of the films several times, and periodically I revisit them.

His new epic work-in-progress “Cannabis Chronicles” comes at a time when a responsible, accurate and dynamic documenting of this next critical cultural, medicinal and agricultural wave is of the first importance.

Mark is also innovating around new models of distribution, and he deserves huge kudos for breaking new ground not only for his own films, but for so many other nonfiction filmmakers. You can now watch these enduring classics on multiple channels and platforms. 

I strongly encourage you to watch Mark’s entire opus, and to alert all your friends and relations to do the same. Amid all the nonsense and chatter out there, these films carry the ring of truth on some of the most crucial topics of our times. And you will feel better about the world after watching them.

– Kenny Ausubel

BIONEERS: Congratulations on the re-release of your films! There are so many issues in them that are relevant today. What made you decide to re-release them?

Mark Kitchell

MARK: The launching of the Films of Mark Kitchell began with restoring Berkeley in the Sixties, my masterpiece, which had been looking worse and worse. Thirty years of degrading video masters, and I finally couldn’t stand it anymore. So we went back to prints and digitized it from film. Then it was colored, and master colorist Gary Coates did a fabulous job. Thirty-one years later it finally looks like the film I intended to make.

Then I took back my two films from my distributor, Berkeley in the Sixties and A Fierce Green Fire. I decided I was going to do my own DVD, because there are still a lot of people who want DVDs. Then I also started a YouTube channel to release some of the archival gems and deleted scenes from Berkeley in the Sixties and other films. The films are on four streaming channels for rent or for sale. On YouTube we’ll do short-term stuff and try and build. And then I have my website where we’re selling downloads and DVDs.

Berkeley in the Sixties captures the decade’s events – civil rights marches and the Free Speech Movement; anti-Vietnam War protests and the hippie counter-culture; the rise of the Black Panthers and the women’s movement – in all their immediacy and passion. Dramatic archival footage is interwoven with eighteen interviews and songs from the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish and The Band. The Village Voice called it “probably the best documentary on the Sixties to date!”

BIONEERS: Berkeley in the Sixties was nominated for an Academy Award and has been widely distributed. What stands out to you in that film that would enrich our understanding – especially young people – of the history of the free speech movement?

MARK: The Free Speech Movement is like a perfect Greek tragedy. It unfolds with such ineffability and such perfect clarity. The velvet glove comes off and they really nail ‘em. You can see how Clark Kerr in that movie damns the protests and students. It’s astonishing the way he actually damns himself. I like people to see the awakening to protest, and I think they learn a lot, going back and seeing the demonstrations against the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where they’re washed down the stairs, yet they don’t go away.

The Civil Rights Movement was so electric with energy in 1963 and 1964 in the Bay Area. They were sitting in and shop-ins at the Lucky supermarket in Berkeley and sitting in at the hotels and the auto showrooms, closing down the Cadillac dealership. It’s fabulous for people to learn all that and see all that, and get them excited.

I remember when I went out with Berkeley… in the early ’90s to places like Dallas, and students then were really eager for a movement. They were asking how can we build a movement like this in these times? And it was a burden to me because I didn’t really know. I didn’t have a good answer, except to say that the movement in Berkeley kind of came out of nowhere. It can happen overnight.

BIONEERS: Many people who watch the film will know the people and groups you feature, but many young people may not be familiar with them. Who stands out to you as someone who has a lot to teach us considering how movements have evolved since the ‘60s?

MARK: Jentri Anders. She is the hippie in the piece who goes back to the land, up to Humboldt County, and even writes a book about it, Beyond Counterculture. She’s an anthropologist, and a real idealist. In fact her life was kind of a series of living in goat shacks and 12x7x6 boxes, and in and out of marriages and relationships, trying to live that counter-culture vision, that ideal that she had. It turned out to be pretty hard but she never gave up.

The ones who were dearest to my heart at the center of it all are Frank Bardacke and Jack Weinberg, who were both leaders of the movement. Jack was inside the car in the Free Speech Movement, and Frank Bardacke dropped out of Harvard and came to Berkeley when he saw the HUAC demonstrations, protesting the film that HUAC made, Operation Abolition, about how it was a communist conspiracy. That ended up recruiting a lot of people to Berkeley. Frank was one of leaders of Stop the Draft Week. He was one of the Oakland Seven and was put on trial and acquitted. He was one of the people in Berkeley who most bought into People’s Park, and the idea that the counter-culture could be revolutionary, and that they were founding mothers and fathers of a new counter-culture, a new society. Those were brave things. At one point in the film, he’s talking about how ’68 it looked like it was a revolutionary time, and then he looks at the camera and says, “We were wrong. You know, everybody can be a little wrong sometimes (laughs.) And it looked like it had a lot of aspects of a revolutionary time.”

BIONEERS: How do you think Berkeley in the Sixties could help people who are working to revive a strong anti-war movement?

MARK: One lesson is to learn how it grew in stages. At first merely coming out against the war and marching was a big statement. That was a function of the anti-war movement in the early days, as Jack Weinberg says, “to break that consensus.” By the time you get to 1967, there were a few big marches in New York and San Francisco in the spring, and nothing changes. There’s a big lesson, and it feeds right into the film Berkeley in the Sixties because that’s the turning point from protest to resistance. Many Berkeley radicals, Frank Bardacke and Jack Weinberg among them, were determined that they had to up the stakes and make the cost of pursuing the war abroad the ungovernability of the society at home. And they succeeded, they shut down the Oakland Induction Center for a day, they threatened chaos in the streets, and they managed to force J. Edgar Hoover to tell President LBJ that he could not guarantee domestic security if they tried to get a million more men to serve as soldiers for Vietnam.

I think the anti-war movement was ultimately successful. They succeeded in putting limits on the war. So maybe it’s a lesson about it feels like you’re losing over and over, but in fact, you’re having impact, and even winning. It’s never as clean as that, but they did succeed in putting limits on America’s imperialistic foreign policy in the period after World War II in the height of our empire. So I say just keep going.

We are putting up archival gems that we found, but could not use in the film, and also deleted scenes. One of the deleted scenes about the anti-war movement is really interesting. You know, there were teach-ins on the Berkeley campus and there’s a debate that featured Arthur Goldberg, who was the US Ambassador to the United Nations. He’s debating Franz Schurman, a professor on the Berkeley campus, and it was held in the Harmon gym. They demanded that everybody be quiet, that there be no cheering, clapping, and so on, and at the end of the debate, they asked people to quietly stand if they were in support of the US position, and a few people stood. And then they asked people who were against to quietly stand, and the whole place stands up. It’s a powerful moment.

Then there’s the Robert Scheer campaign. Bob Scheer was the editor of Ramparts magazine. He was a really important early radical, and one of the first people to turn us on to what was going on in Vietnam and fight it. He ran for Congress in 1966 as an anti-war candidate, and that’s an interesting scene. One of the lessons in that scene is for John Gage, who’s our straight guy, you know? He and another person go out and work one or two precincts around Lake Merritt one weekend before the primary election, and were able to swing that precinct from 20% to 45% in favor of Scheer. So he learned a big lesson about the importance of electoral politics.

John Gage then works on the Bobby Kennedy campaign in 1968 in California. Of course, we all know what happened was that Bobby Kennedy won the primary and was assassinated. So Gage goes to Chicago, the 1968 Democratic Convention, as a delegate.

I urge people to check out our YouTube channel to see the deleted scenes and archival gems.

A Fierce Green Fire is a big-picture exploration of the environmental movement, grassroots and global activism spanning five decades from conservation to climate change. Inspired by the book by Philip Shabecoff, the title comes from pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold — who saw a fierce green fire in the eyes of a wolf he’d just shot and awakened to an ecological perspective.

BIONEERS: A Fierce Green Fire covers many topics and issues. Which ones stand out for you since your film was released?

MARK: It’s kind of amazing how across three films, you know, I’m telling more stories about people winning victories than I am about people losing, and sometimes they’re doing both at the same time, but it ultimately, you know, that’s politics. Those are good lessons to learn.

Love Canal’s a great story. It’s a story that’s not as well-known as it should be, and Lois Gibbs is a heroine fighting 20,000 tons of toxic waste. And they win too. She’s the reason why Love Canal got solved, because you need that quality of leadership and confrontation and community response. That story really engages people.

The Sierra Club’s beginnings and its rise is sort of a story of dams, and it begins when the City of San Francisco proposed to build a dam, a water reservoir in a national park, in Hetch Hetchy, a valley that’s on the same scale and order as Yosemite Valley itself. John Muir, who was kind of the leading voice of the early Sierra Club, fought it for 12 long years, and without getting into the details they ended up losing. The dam was built, and Hetch Hetchy was flooded. You could say that Muir died soon after of a broken heart. But the Sierra Club, you know, licked its wounds and kept on fighting, and they knew they were in the right.

Then in the ‘50s, there came another dam in another national park, and this one was really out there. It was a Dinosaur National Monument on the border of Utah and Colorado. This was part of the Colorado River project where they were going to build 12 dams stair-stepping all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Dinosaur Monument is another beautiful sandstone canyon, and they were going to store water there for power. They had just hired David Brower, and Brower was a man on fire. And they took that battle to the government. They took it to Wayne Aspinall, the congressman who was the head of powerful interior committee and those mountain states Congress people, and they managed to turn around Mike Mansfield and force a lot of politicians to give up. So they eventually won, and they made a deal that they would not oppose other dams further down the Colorado River.

Of course, that meant that they had agreed to the construction of Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam. That became the thing that Brower regretted the most, that he had agreed to sacrifice Glen Canyon to save Dinosaur, and he never really forgave himself. But it motivated him into that fight for Grand Canyon. They started constructing a couple of power dams and planned to dig a tunnel that would go under the north mesa of Grand Canyon, 100 miles downstream, and they were going to take the water out of the Grand Canyon and use it to provide power for Phoenix, Arizona.

David Brower, as seen in A Fierce Green Fire

They won that fight and banned dams forevermore in the Grand Canyon. At that point the Sierra Club was the leading voice of conservation, people were focused on parks and sea shores and wild rivers and national forests, and just everything. That was the high tide of conservation, at the end of the ‘60s going into the ‘70s and Earth Day. So that was what really propelled the Sierra Club into what it’s become today.

BIONEERS: How do you feel this film can help inform people who want to know more about the roots of this conservation movement?

MARK: Well, in some ways the conservation movement is the whitest and most conservative and mainstream part of the environmental movement. And it’s the part that a lot of people are willing to fight for and fund. Conservation got a lot of traction, probably because it was in everybody’s backyard. It’s grown and grown, and has become not just about parks and places for people to play, but it’s about saving wildlife, saving habitat, and it’s just so enduringly popular. You know? I think it’s good for people to understand when they’re talking about the Bear’s Ears or banning fracking on public land, that’s coming out of this fight to save wild places. That was kind of a desperate battle at the beginning. You know?

One of the stories we could have told was about the battle to save the redwoods. Now there’s a story where they lost and lost and lost, and they thought they won, but what they won was cut-over forest for the most part. There are a lot of conservation battles that are pyrrhic victories.

I can’t read about the Amazon without being heartbroken because it looked like they saved it. It looked like Chico Mendes and rubbertappers and the Indians, and the international movement to save the Amazon, it looked like it succeeded, but here we are back again. Logging and clearing land for soy production are kind of relentless.

There’s a saying about conservation that you have to win a dozen times to get a bill like the Redwood National Park passed, but you only need to lose once and it’s over, and they’re cutting the trees. It was always a much harder lift to get something positive approved, like the Alaska Wild Lands Act, which was a million acres? A million square miles, something like that. All those things are difficult to pass, so it’s much easier for presidents to declare a national monument or something like that. And these go back and forth. Like the Bear’s Ears in Utah, and the Grand Escalante Staircase national monument. That’s a place I really love. And so it’s good to see that once again they’re going to save it.

Evolution of Organic brings us the story of organic agriculture, told by those who built the movement. A motley crew of back-to-the-landers, spiritual seekers and farmers’ sons and daughters reject chemical farming and set out to explore organic alternatives. It’s a heartfelt journey of change from a small band of rebels to a cultural transformation in the way we grow and eat food. By now organic has gone mainstream – split into an industry oriented toward bringing organic to all people, and a movement that has realized a vision of sustainable agriculture.

BIONEERS: Evolution of Organic is another film that really stands out right now, with the rapid growth of the organic food movement, and beyond to permaculture, regenerative agriculture, holistic approaches to food, land, soil, and connecting all these issues. People fought very hard to get organic and other standards in place, and continue to fight to protect those standards. What stands out for you in that film as you re-release it?

MARK: There’s a women-owned collective, Veritable Vegetable. They’ve been distributors to the organic market since the very beginning, since it was wooden shelves with a few cardboard boxes and not much else. And Bu Nygrens is particularly good about this. She talks about how organic standards were dismissed as child’s play at first, that there was no scientific evidence, that there was a lot of cheating, and we couldn’t trust the government to set standards. So they really had to create their own standards, and then they had to enforce them. Of course, it was the USDA finally coming aboard, I think in 1990, and it took 10 years to establish the USDA standards. There was a big argument, they wanted to include in the organic standards things like genetic modification, sewage sludge, and irradiation.

So they had to fight hard, and it’s a testament to the power of that movement, how more and more people came to it. You’d be hard-pressed to find a movement that’s made it as far into mainstream culture as organic agriculture, and it’s clearly an outgrowth of the ‘60s movements.

There are some brilliant people like Amigo Bob Contisano, who just passed away, who was really like a Johnny Appleseed to the movement. He would find out about stuff someone was doing over here, and go tell people over there. He was spreading, disseminating technology and resources and advice and so on. He was doing this for pot growers as well.

He talks in the film about how he started this business in the back of his barn, where he needed phosphate, and the only way you could buy phosphate was by the ton. So he bought a railroad car of phosphate and started selling out of the back of his barn. There’s another great story about natural pest control, and there’s an unsung hero at UC Berkeley, Dr. Robert Van Den Bosch, a pioneer in the field. He went to Iran and found a parasitoid wasp that ate aphids. Actually what it did was it laid its eggs in the aphids, and as the eggs grew, they would eat the aphids from the inside out. How cool is that? [LAUGHTER] They did the experiments on Amigo’s ranch because it was one of the only ones in the Central Valley that wasn’t sprayed with pesticides to within an inch of its life — and they found it worked. It cost $5,000, he says, and they haven’t had a problem with aphids since.

Another story I tell is about how organic went from being this sort of hippie peripheral world of grungy stores to beautiful lettuces and cuisine and Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. There was a time when if you wanted organic food you had to go to Chez Panisse. Right? Not like today. An important part of how organic grew was that mainstream farmers started to take it on, and this was in the ‘80s. One of the real pioneers was Steve Pavich, who lived down in Delano, a grape growing family. He went to Fresno State and learned how pesticides were going to lead to nirvana; then he got home and tried it, and within a season, it was a failure. He says they were just pouring pesticide on top of more pesticide in this already depleted ground. He was a real pioneer. They must have put in almost 10 years before anybody would really buy their grapes as organic. Before that they had to sell their grapes as conventional.

BIONEERS: Chemical companies never seem to give up trying to discredit claims made by the organic food movement. Where do you see the movement now considering their constant disinformation on its benefits, both for human health and for wildlife and the environment?

MARK: Well, basically the big companies are eventually going to make the change from chemical-based pesticides and fertilizers to biologically-based ones. Monsanto has a farm out in Hawaii where they’re experimenting with biological controls, and that indeed is the wave of the future, and a much better way to go. But what’s making people in the organic movement really uncomfortable and unhappy is the industry is coming in and they’re saying, okay, we won’t base it on chemicals anymore, we’ll base it on biological stuff. But it’s the same industry and it’s the same mindset and it’s the same approach to agriculture industry. You know? It’s kind of yeah, they got it, but they didn’t get it. And the problem hasn’t gone away so much. And so that’s another thing.

BIONEERS: Can you talk about your latest project?

MARK: Yes, while I was making Evolution of Organic, everybody kept saying to me your next film has to be about cannabis, about marijuana. We weren’t even calling it cannabis then, because that was the time, what 2016 to 2018 when it had been fully legalized and was coming online, and everybody was full of that sense of here comes legal marijuana, and somebody has to tell that story. So I said I will. I couldn’t believe, once again, nobody had beaten me to this incredible, amazing, powerful, important story. I guess I make histories of social change movements, and so it was this, okay, here’s your next one.

So I started reading and writing, and we went up and we interviewed some people. I first wrote it up as a five-part series that’s meant to be the big picture history of the world’s favorite illegal drug and all the movements to legalize it and all that. But then in the course of the pandemic, I decided I’d better make a stand-alone film. The first idea was the Emerald Triangle, which is Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties in far northern California. That’s the heartland of cannabis. I decided I would do a stand-alone film about the heartland of cannabis. It’s got this fabulous dramatic arc of rise and fall and rise again. You know? Because it starts with the hippies going back to the land, and they sort of transform home grown into the best herb in the world. There were guys who went to Afghanistan and sewed indica seeds into their clothes and smuggled it in, brought it to the Emerald Triangle.

And just as the Emerald Triangle is becoming an outlaw nation, with an economic basis in growing pot, and they’ve learned how to avoid the cops and it’s looking like they might realize some of their ideals for a new alternative society — then comes CAMP in 1983. That was a federal/state/multi-agency invasion that goes on for almost twenty years, where they invade the Emerald Triangle with helicopters and soldiers dropping down lines and eradication squads, coming in illegally, arresting people and taking them away, and confiscating their gardens.

It’s another great story and so full of irony and unexpected twists and turns. The Emerald Triangle, that community, that outlaw nation, managed to survive everything except legalization. [LAUGHTER] You know? Only two or three percent of the growers up there can afford to go legal because it’s so much regulation, so much cost.

Some of them just stopped growing, but there’s a lot of people up there still growing and still illegal, and the underground market, the black market is still three or four times the size of the legal market, and there’s lots of reasons why things didn’t work out right. Hopefully New York, which just legalized adult use, will learn from all these things.

BIONEERS: Then there is the injustice of people spending time in prison right now for nonviolent possession or sales of something that is now legal.

MARK: That’s become an issue that kind of was totally off the map. Now, in some ways it’s the most important issue, and the driving issue. It certainly was when Washington state legalized. That was the key thing, and that battle was led by people at the ACLU. It was a great mistake and it has to be corrected.

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