1195 George Washington Highway (Route 146), North Smithfield
It’s been three and a half years since the death of Mark Baumer, a Providence writer and environmental activist whose prolific creative output included a web-based performance art streak. His final work was an astonishing series of self-edited YouTube videos, shared daily as he began to walk barefoot across the United States in the fall of 2016. He had crossed the country twice before, hitchhiking and then walking with shoes on, but he claimed his barefoot mission was to “save the earth” or, more specifically, to grow support for grassroots environmental activism and raise money for FANG Collective, a local organization initially dedicated to Fighting Against National Gas.
It seems so naïve now, but many people thought that 2016 was the worst year in history. The November election shocked a lot of people, but it landed at the end of a gruelingly bleak two-year election cycle. People’s heroes died in droves that year: David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher. And, of course, there were the ongoing environmental catastrophes: the Standing Rock protests began that August, Flint endured the third year of its water crisis, and fracking was still making headlines as Donald Trump promised voters that he would resurrect coal mining jobs.
Baumer funded his trip with a $5000 poetry fellowship he received from the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts. Those of us who followed his journey on Instagram tuned in daily to track his progress, see what minimal combo of uncooked vegan gas station foods he was eating, look at the frightful state of his soles, and witness reactions to this long-haired, barefoot man wandering in late fall through their towns and highways. Some people were angry. Others tried to be helpful, though they were nearly always rebuffed. Baumer had the determination of an ascetic but also seemed quite naïve about human intentions, marveling that people would actually offer him food or shoes without first asking whether he wanted them.
And how, I always wondered, did he manage to keep his phone charged that whole time?
Those videos provide the bulk of Julie Sokolow’s Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story, which makes its Rhode Island debut this week after premering at festivals late last year.
The footage we see, nearly all self-recorded, includes restless stream-of-consciousness monologues about his journey, rural America, and the environment. Sokolow mixes that footage with interviews of Baumer’s parents, his girlfriend, and a handful of friends, work colleagues, and local environmental activists. Sokolow’s big challenge as a filmmaker was to re-edit Baumer’s footage in a way that smoothed out technical hiccups and tempered his larger than life video persona, which was intended to be viewed in short bursts. Sokolow had no raw footage to speak of, since his phone was never recovered, so everything is culled from Youtube.
She followed Baumer’s journey after a mutual friend posted about it on Facebook. “He had a sense of humor that’s unique and rare,” Sokolow told me this weekend. “And as a filmmaker, I was drawn to his fearless DIY filmmaking style.” The documentary is successful because she respects her subject enough to let him do most of the talking.
Baumer exudes a lot of nervous energy, both emotionally and physically. The Maine native had captained his high school hockey team, played baseball in college, and got into the barefoot running craze that followed the release of Christopher McDougall’s 2009 bestseller Born To Run. He also released poetry books at breakneck speed, over fifty in all.
He was genuinely troubled by the world but articulate enough to explain why, and he made a few converts along the way as he walked through the old coal regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio. A Vice reporter wrote about his journey; after he died, so did a lot of other people. “He really did do this DIY outreach,” Sokolow says of the strangers he encountered. “He did touch people around the country in addition to online.”
Baumer’s Youtube channel includes hundreds of videos, some very funny, though the last is deadly serious. Recorded on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Baumer vents about living in a nation whose president doesn’t care about the future, a country where an Oklahoma oil insider like Scott Pruitt could be seriously floated as chair of the EPA, an organization he had previously sued no less than fourteen times. (Pruitt seems like such a minor blip now, but he was appointed in February 2017 and left his post amid much scandal in the summer of 2018.)
Baumer’s death is the sort of event that would be thrown out of a fiction writing workshop for being too far-fetched. The blog he kept was notgoingtomakeit.com, for one thing. And the day after President Trump’s inauguration, on the 101st day of the journey, Baumer was struck by a car in the middle of the afternoon while walking down a road in the Florida panhandle. Earlier that day, coincidentally, he had posted a photo of the word “Killed” that was spraypainted in the road. The accident would make headlines around the world, with an accurate New Yorker obituary comparing Baumer’s personality to that of a sardonic game show host.
The film doesn’t shy away from bristly imagery. Footage of the president announcing withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord is no less upsetting than the close-ups of Baumer’s injured feet. (The effects of rock salt on snowy roads nearly ended the walk.)
Baumer’s frustration is condensed in a blog post he wrote on the road: “I always hear that this is the most important crisis of our time—but you look around, and people aren’t freaking out. If this was a war, people would be rationing. Look at World War II: People were mobilized almost immediately.”
“His death was a crushing blow even as a fan,” Sokolow says. “And it felt so symbolic of dark times ahead.” It’s hard to think about what the poet-activist would have made of the last three and a half years.
Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story is screening as the opening night drive-in feature of Flickers, the 38th Rhode Island International Film Festival. The film begins on a night that kicks off with seven (seven!) short films.
The screening takes place at Rustic Drive-In. Unlike single-screen drive-in experiences, where the theater can just blast the sound, the “tri-view” Rustic requires you to stay seated in your car in order to hear anything, so it’s about as socially distant as you can get. There are plans for a digital release later this fall. (Follow the movie’s Facebook page for updates.)
Tickets are available through Flickers and MUST be purchased in advance.