When it seemed as if there wasn’t any movement on climate change, Mark Baumer saw to it that he’d take the first steps towards starting a movement. Known for embarking on ambitious and peculiar projects, once challenging himself to write 50 books in a year and eating exclusively pizza for three months, Baumer’s love of the environment, cultivated by family trips out to the lakes of Maine when he was a boy, led him to pursue a cross-country walk without shoes to attract attention towards living a more conscientious life, recording himself for videos that would go viral on YouTube. Baumer wasn’t able to see his walk through the end, tragically hit by a car at the age of 33 as he was making his way through Florida.
However, Baumer’s spirit lives on in “Barefoot,” which collects the videos he compiled on the road as well as memories of him from his friends and family that director Julie Sokolow gathers with both the sensitivity and curiosity which her subject saw the world. Following the path that Baumer uniquely carved out for himself, Sokolow charts his desire to raise money for the environmental activists at FANG, a Rhode Island-based collective that had banded together against fracking, and was increasingly disheartened by the prospect of a Trump presidency in 2016, eventually walking the walk and relying on the kindness of strangers along the way to keep him going, either with small donations to the cause or simply engaging with him about climate change.
As Baumer experiences loneliness out on the road, the film shows the toll it took on those who could only connect with him by watching his videos online, understanding that his trek was as much an exercise in soul-searching for himself as he hoped to inspire in others as he reached a crossroads after college where he studied creative writing and hadn’t yet found the proper outlet for his voice. With “Barefoot,” Sokolow allows that to come out in resounding fashion and lets Baumer continue to inspire through his infectious enthusiasm and optimism and now available to see anywhere following a successful festival run, the director was joined by Baumer’s parents Jim and Mary to talk about how they put together this loving tribute.
How did this come about?
Julie Sokolow: Back in 2016, I just stumbled on Mark Baumer’s YouTube videos that a mutual friend had posted and I immediately connected to his sense of humor and penchant for the absurd. The New Yorker had likened him to Andy Kaufman, so I definitely liked that element that he presented in his videos and I was also feeling climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. I hoped with connect with him down the line and maybe collaborate and when I found out he was killed, I was just devastated as a fan. I reached out to his parents Jim and Mary and wanted to commemorate his life through a film.
Jim Baumer: Yeah, we had been contacted probably weeks after Mark’s death by a couple of documentary filmmakers and it’s hard. You’re experiencing this devastating loss and at that point, you’re just trying to exist, so it’s hard to really make a decision as big as a documentary. We had been doing interviews in the weeks after Mark’s death [because] it was a national and international news story, and through a mutual friend of Mark’s, Julie was introduced to us through a phone call. The conversation went very well and Mary and I were open to continuing it and when she came up in March, it was very interesting [because] I was thinking, “Well, we’ve got a bunch of hotels around here,” and I was recommending places. And she said, “Well, usually what I like to do is to stay with the family and it does one of two things – I find out if I can work with them and they find out if they can work with me.” When I picked her up at the airport, it was about a 45-minute drive back and I knew probably 10 minutes into the car ride back home that Julie was going to be really easy to be around and she was. She’s just done such an amazing job with the film in capturing Mark and his complexity and the wonderful things he was trying to get across in his final walk.
For Julie, after meeting Mark through his videos, was it interesting to discover him as a person through the people who knew him?
Yeah, I never got to meet Mark in person. I tweeted about him and he retweeted it and that’s the extent of our getting to talk to one another, so it was very emotional when making the film, getting to know him after he passed, and just wishing that I got to meet him because I think we would’ve been great friends. In his videos on the barefoot walk, he’s so funny and charismatic and performative and when I’d interview his friends and family, I’d get to hear about these different sides to him like how he was an athlete growing up and went to Brown University and got his degree in writing and worked at the library. Hearing his friends say that he was really quiet sometimes, that’s something that I would never know through the videos alone, and then really being curious about his psychology of how he managed those different personas that he had — like we all have, but maybe for him there was maybe more of a difference because he was more of a performance artist in a certain sense.
Jim and Mary, when you know you have this platform of a film, is there anything you wanted to make sure came across about Mark?
Mary Baumer: Julie did a great job, touching on everything and she’d always listen to what we had to say. When I watch the film, I want to be a better person.
Jim Baumer: The central element of Mark’s walk was saving earth and he was deeply concerned about what was happening to earth in terms of climate change and felt the issue wasn’t being given attention, so we really wanted a film that touched on those things that Mark was passionate about. He was a committed activist, raising funds for a collective he was a part of in Rhode Island – FANG, which is Fighting Against Natural Gas — and also a plant-based vegan and felt that one of the ways people could make a significant impact on the climate positively was reducing the consumption of meat, so there were things in the film that came across.
Was there anything from an interview or diving into this archival that had come as a surprise?
Julie Sokolow: The biggest surprises were how really prolific Mark was. There was so much writing out there, his experimental writing, and there’s so many videos on his YouTube channel, like 500 of them he made over a decade, so in addition to his videos chronicling the barefoot walk, there’s also these videos where he’s prank calling literary agents. They’re hilarious videos and I’m like, “Man, I wish I could incorporate these into the film,” but I never could really find a way to do it. I think it’s good that we focused it. One thing that we didn’t get to cover in the film is the fact that Mark did walk across the country in 2010 with shoes in 81 days. It’s an incredible feat that he accomplished and I had that in a lot of the earlier cuts of the film, but ended up cutting it out because it just took away from the magnitude of what he was doing with the barefoot walk. It somehow just didn’t fit into this story that we were telling, but it’s a good supplemental thing for people to know about him – that and the fact that he read this book “Born to Run” about the barefoot running culture in different societies and he built up his feet [to withstand such a trek]. So he understood the humorous, whimsical side of being barefoot, but he also trained and studied and made sure that he was as safe as he could possibly be on this trip.
You were fortunate enough to premiere before the pandemic hit – what was it like seeing audiences engage with it?
Mary Baumer: Jim and I went to two film festivals and as parents, watching Mark on the big screen, it was really emotional for us, but [during] the film, you’d hear the audience laugh and then you’d hear them cry. It was really good how the film came out and the reaction of the audience, [they] were just so receptive and it was a wonderful experience. I’m glad we were able to see it live when we could.
Julie Sokolow: And we did get to play a few film festivals and be there in person — Heartland International Film Festival, Omaha Film Festival, the Three Rivers Film Festival — but since COVID hit, we’re still doing festivals and the film, which is really this American road trip film, has surprisingly had this appeal around the world. We’ve played at festivals in Italy and Australia and Estonia, so it’s incredible to see the international resonance the story is having.
Mary Baumer: We [also] started a nonprofit MarkBaumerSustainabilityFund.org, funding important community projects that raise awareness about the environment and promote social justice as well as involving and serving the underserved populations. We’re just trying to do good things in Mark’s name and people/causes that he cares about. He was very big on supporting local farmers, so we teamed up with a nonprofit farm that grows wonderful vegetables for food pantries in Maine. We’ve given them organic compost, which might sound like what’s the big deal? but [they’d] not be able to have it if it wasn’t for us and it’s really making a big difference in so many people’s lives. [We just ask people] in your community, see where you can get involved. Julie says it a lot, maybe have one meal a week without meat. Touch the earth with your feet. Slow down. Get involved. We’re trying to make a difference in our little community and we’re hoping that other people will too.