Tuesday, October 27, 2020

|Podcast| Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story - Julie Sokolow, Jim & Mary Baumer

From award-winning filmmaker Julie Sokolow comes this loving portrait of Mark Baumer, an environmental activist, avant-garde writer, and vegan, who hiked barefoot for over 100 days across America to draw attention to climate change. In a voice The New Yorker praised as “reminiscent of Andy Kaufman”, Baumer narrates his offbeat take on life and how we all can make a difference. Skillfully edited from Baumer’s own self-recorded videos, along with interviews from family and friends, it’s a moving portrait filled with laughs, tragedy, and inspiration. A movie about a man who loved life, loved the world, and it showed in everything he did.

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“An affectionate and inspiring portrait of someone who walked the walk.” Barefoot is a “clear-eyed documentary” about “a man who discarded not merely his shoes, but also the trappings and constraints of the contemporary rat race.” The Hollywood Reporter

Barefoot “manages to get at deeper systemic questions that we often don’t face. Who is this world for? Why is it weird to walk from place to place? Why is it completely dangerous to do so? Why was our land designed this way, and what are the repercussions of that? By raising these questions through its material, ‘Barefoot’ becomes something more than a tragic story of a truly unique artist gone too soon — it’s also a profound inquiry into the very way we have to live our modern lives.” The Playlist

“One of the finest American documentary features on offer was writer/director/editor Julie Sokolow’s Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story”… “Baumer was a nonstop social-media diarist, and Sokolow has skillfully edited his self-recorded videos—and additional material—into a moving portrait that deservedly captured the Best Documentary Premiere Prize.” Cineaste

Photo Content from Julie Sokolow
Julie Sokolow - Director
Julie Sokolow is the award-winning director of Woman on Fire, which aired on Starz in 2017. The film is about Brooke Guinan, the first openly transgender firefighter in New York. She also directed Aspie Seeks Love, which won Best Documentary at the Cinequest Film Festival in 2015. She is the creator of the Healthy Artists web series (2012-4), about the challenges of artists without health care access. Her films have been featured by the New York Times, Vimeo Staff Picks, IndieWire, VICE, Salon, Village Voice and Huffington Post.

Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story is the third documentary feature by award-winning director Julie Sokolow. The idea came to her in 2016, when she discovered Mark’s daily YouTube videos, documenting his barefoot journey across America. 

“Mark’s sense of humor immediately pulled me in,” she remembers. “The climate crisis is so overwhelming, but Mark’s blend of activism, comedy, and performance art makes the issue seem approachable. It’s very inspiring.” 

Through the spectacular act of walking barefoot for hundreds of miles, Mark hoped to raise awareness about climate change while raising $10,000 for FANG (Fighting Against Natural Gas), an activist collective based in Providence, Rhode Island. 

“I was a fan. I tweeted about him, donated to his fundraiser, and planned to contact him after his journey’s completion,” Sokolow says, “but I never got the chance to.”

Photo Content from Julie Sokolow

On January 21, 2017, Mark was fatally struck by an SUV that veered into the road’s shoulder. Mark had been wearing an orange safety vest and was walking against the traffic, in accordance with safety conventions. The driver was charged with the civil infraction of failing to drive in a single lane, resulting in a fatality.

“I was devastated, even though I never met him,” Sokolow remembers. “That’s a testament to the power of his work.” 

At that point, Sokolow knew she wanted to create a film to celebrate Mark’s life and barefoot walk. She reached out to a mutual friend she shared with Mark, who introduced her to Mark’s family. 

“I was hesitant to contact grieving parents who had just lost their only child,” Sokolow admits. “But I saw that Mark’s story had gone viral and the parents were granting interviews. Then, I learned that a number of filmmakers had already contacted them.” 

Mark’s parents, Jim and Mary, appreciated the fact that Sokolow had been a fan of Mark’s work during his life. They also recognized that her prior documentaries embody the same social justice values that Mark believed in.

They agreed to work with her. 

“We’re really thrilled that Julie is the filmmaker,” Jim comments. “We’re convinced that Julie was the right person. She understood Mark’s social justice commitment and captured the full complexity of who Mark was.” 

In March 2017, Julie flew to Maine to meet the Baumers and embark on their first shoot. 

Sokolow's filmmaking method involves building intimate bonds with her subjects, so she stayed with Jim and Mary at their house for several days. The experience helped Sokolow better understand her subjects, establish trust, and build friendship. 

For this delicate initial shoot, she employed a sparse crew, bringing only her cinematographer, John Pope, and a local production assistant to the interviews. 

“We started filming two months after Mark’s death,” Sokolow recalls. “Emotions were extremely raw.” 

Jim and Mary proved to be brave and trusting collaborators. They permitted the camera into emotionally-charged spaces, including Mark’s funeral. Having recently established a nonprofit, The Mark Baumer Sustainability Fund, they knew that Barefoot could help to shine a light on their charitable efforts, as well as their son’s life story. 

“Mark always wanted to be famous,” says Jim. “I think he would be really excited that people were watching a film about him.” 

After seeing promising footage from the first shoot, Animal Studio came on board as Barefoot’s production company. Known for creating the Sundance-winning documentary Blood Brother (2013) and ABC’s Downward Dog (2017), Animal was well positioned to support Barefoot from production to completion. Animal also produced Sokolow’s prior documentaries Aspie Seeks Love (2015) and Woman on Fire (2017). 

Once Animal signed on, the crew expanded to include producer Olivia Vaughn, producer Danny Yourd, assistant camera Mike Bacanu, and various local crew to grip and run sound. Renowned cinematographer John Pope shot the film on the Sony FS7 with Zeiss Otus lenses, providing a contrast in style to Mark’s lo-fi cell phone footage. 

The production ran intermittently from March 2017 to March 2019. Filming locations included Maine, Rhode Island, and New York. 

“We interviewed eight people for the film,” Sokolow says. “Mark knew a lot of people, and we could’ve interviewed so many more, but we decided instead to go really deep with the people Mark was closest to.” 

One of the interviewees, Mark’s girlfriend, Ada Smailbegovic, stands out as a relatable subject. “I was hoping to maybe spend my life with Mark,” she admits in an emotional interview. A poet and assistant professor at Brown University, Ada is a fascinating person in her own right, who shared a profound love for writing and creativity with her late boyfriend. 

“He was a really, really, really hard worker,” Ada says in the film. “He was producing longer works like manuscripts, and getting to both produce writing and video every day was really like a kind of dream for Mark of actually making art full time.” 

After his death, The New Yorker called Mark a “compulsive social media diarist.” Mark’s YouTube channel contains nearly 500 original videos representing over a decade of his work. 100 of those videos depict the barefoot walk and total almost seven hours of content. 

“I felt a responsibility to preserve, curate, and share Mark’s videos,” Julie says. “They’re incredible examples of fearless DIY filmmaking and I think people will be struck by Mark’s own talents as a documentary filmmaker.”

Photo Content from Julie Sokolow

“One of my favorite scenes is Mark walking barefoot in Times Square,” Sokolow comments. “It’s triumphant, because he walked 173 miles to get to this colorful, iconic place. But later he reveals how dirty his feet are, and it’s kind of frightening. The risk of what he’s doing sets back in.” 

After his visit to New York City, Mark continued west. As he traveled through rural parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio, more and more Trump signs began to appear on the landscape, and Trump and his anti-environmental message became a more frequent topic of Mark’s videos. 

“In the film, Trump is a character foil to Mark,” Sokolow notes. “Whereas Trump is a climate change denier, Mark dedicated his life to support the environment through things like being vegan, not owning a car, and installing solar panels on his house. He represents everything Mark stands against.” 

“I’m so glad that Julie ended up creating a parallel story in the documentary about Mark that touches on the run-up to Trump’s election,” Jim explains, “because I do think it was a central element in the walk and what was going on in the country prior to Mark being killed.” 

Sokolow edits all of her documentaries, and Barefoot was no exception. When editing the film, Sokolow was mindful about bringing in breathing room and a slower pace to counterbalance Mark’s frenetic, self-edited cell phone footage. 

Along with these careful editing choices, the film’s tone is created in large part through a sensitive original score contributed by Ryan Will Stewart, who worked with Sokolow on a scene-by-scene basis to get the emotions and the voice right.
Photo Content from Julie Sokolow

Over the course of its 87 minutes, the film transitions frequently from triumph to adversity, culminating in a dramatic climax. 

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated. It was also Mark’s 100th day on the road. Mark’s video “Day 100” would be his final YouTube transmission. 

“We now officially have a president who does not believe in climate change,” Mark declares in his final video recording. 

The next day, Mark was killed. The Florida Highway Patrol deemed it a non-criminal traffic violation. 

“Mark’s death felt very symbolic,” Sokolow says. “To have Trump rise to power, and lose Mark on the same weekend, it felt like the beginning of dark times. But I know that Mark would want people to keep fighting for positive change.” 

Producer Olivia Vaughn adds, “I hope this film inspires everyone watching to stand up for what they believe in. We need this now more than ever.” 

It is fitting that Barefoot is now screening at film festivals in the run-up to the 2020 election. 

“Mark articulates the danger that Donald Trump poses to the environment,” Sokolow says. “I hope we don’t make the same mistake by re-electing Trump in 2020.” 

Ultimately, Mark Baumer shows how one person can make a difference through personal sacrifice and commitment to values. Although he died at age 33, he lived a remarkable, fearless life. 

“Mark hiked over 700 miles barefoot, that’s how passionate he was about the environment,” Sokolow explains. “I hope audiences are inspired by Mark’s journey to make changes, big and small, personal and political, to help save our planet before it’s too late.”
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