If you’re not familiar with Mark Baumer’s quest, it is a heroic one indeed. Inspired by FANG, an activist collective, Mark decided to pair his love of barefoot running with his passion for environmentalism and set out to walk across the United States in order to raise money and awareness for climate change. Along the way, he documented his efforts on his vlog, downloading hundreds of videos to YouTube. His journey garnered tons of positive press and support while raising over $10,000 to help FANG shut down pipelines and protect water resources. The even crazier thing? This wasn’t Mark’s first trek across the U.S., but it was his first without shoes! It was an awe-inspiring idea that was sadly cut short when Mark’s life tragically ended in Florida, just 3 months into his trek. But what happens before that horrible day is nothing short of magical.
One could say that Barefoot was made by the subject himself. Mark assiduously documented his projects, painstakingly preserving his journey with an almost obsessive level of detail. However, that’s not to take away credit where it’s very much due. Director Julie Sokolow culled hours of video, YouTube entries, and interviews with Mark’s parents, girlfriend, friends, and fellow activists to help bring Baumer’s story seamlessly to life. The blend of his real-time antics, thanks to his own films, combined with loving reflections of those close to him allow the viewer a full portrait of a man we lost way too soon.
There is much to laud in Baumer’s life, with the most striking being his honesty. Mark seemed to have a sophisticated yet unironic blend of angst and childlike wonder. His sense of humor sometimes bordered on absurd and comparisons to Andy Kaufman are apt. (He once decided to eat pizza every day for months, including a piece of paper with pizza drawn on it in crayon.) He lived and breathed his art and it wasn’t for hipster cache. It was literally do or die; if Mark wasn’t creating, he was spiraling, so create he did, including publishing eight books to accompany his countless vlog posts. (It is never addressed in the documentary, but one does wonder if he was undiagnosed with Asperger’s. He is both charmingly and painfully out of synch with this modern world.) Watching this film, one is grateful he was so prolific with his short life – he’s left behind a swath of creativity most aspire to after 80 years, not 30.
Again, Julie Sokolow does deft work here, especially with the emotional interviews. I was stunned at how Baumer’s parents and girlfriend were able to share their memories without totally dissolving with grief. It takes a steady presence to evoke such trust in their subjects, so kudos to Ms. Sokolow for capturing such tender and revealing moments.
Of course, no one is perfect, and this documentary doesn’t gloss over the things that made Mark complicated. He didn’t always take his girlfriend’s needs into account – in fact he didn’t even consult her about leaving on his walk. He’s stubborn about ceding the road to cars. (There are many gut churning moments where vehicles whizz by him while he shakes his fist. He doesn’t want to admit that the highway simply isn’t an appropriate place to take a stroll. Though it is important to note that he was always cautious, wore a reflective orange hazard vest, and did walk against traffic for visibility.) He unabashedly wanted to be famous, a fact his father states with stout directness. And it’s all lovely. Because this is the story of a human being who was more than one thing. (You can crave the limelight and do good – it’s true!) Above all else, Mark was a man who lived passionately by his ideals, no matter the cost. He left a guide for those brave enough to follow, and this documentary serves as a beautiful ode to a well-deserved legacy.
This is a must-see. Mark, and those close to him, will inspired you to do better and be better. Though the ending will gut you, the journey is worth it. Take a beat to wipe your tears and try to pick up where Baumer left off. It’s the least we can do for an inspired artist, and for our Earth.
Nuggets – more film thoughts:
* Mark’s walk is inexorably tied to the onslaught of Donald Trump’s nefarious politic run. Baumer begins his quest during the 2016 election season and was killed the day Trump was sworn into office. There is no small amount of painful irony in this. Here’s hoping they are tied together one last time, with the release of this wonderful film timed with seeing the U.S. usher Trump out of the White House forever.
* I couldn’t shake the chills of Mark’s last night. Though he often treated himself to hotel rooms, his final evening found him sleeping on Astroturf in an industrial complex. The concrete and fake grass seemed to be a poor omen, and sadly it was. In fact, his own mortality is one of the constant themes that pops up, as he often wonders if he’ll “get dead” on the trip. Watching him weep on his porch before he embarks on his adventure will haunt you. It’s hard not to feel he had an inkling that he wasn’t coming back.
* I’m compelled to stress again how absolutely lovely Mark’s parents and girlfriend come across. We spend almost as much time getting to know Jim and Mary Baumer, as well as Ada Smailbegovic, an Assistant Professor of English at Brown, as with do with Mark and his videos, and all are a joy.
* I’ve got to chime in to tell you how absolutely terrifying it is to drive in Florida. I had to go for a work conference a few years ago and I have never been more scared to be on the road, ever. I spoke to a local about it who laughed and said, “Oh, yeah. That’s the culture here. People don’t believe in rules. They think traffic lights are just a suggestion, and stop signs are for pussies.” I almost got sideswiped once and nearly run off the road three times. I’ve never been more relieved to return a rental car. All this to say, it is heartbreaking yet entirely unsurprising that this is where Mark met his end. Drivers are absolutely fucking nuts down there.