Local Filmmaker's Documentary Honors Barefoot Cross-Country-Hiking Activist

Nov 11, 2019

Julie Sokolow first encountered writer and activist Mark Baumer the way most people who’d heard of him did: through the quirky online videos he posted of his quest to walk barefoot across America to fight climate change.

"Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story" screens 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 16, and 4:30 p.m. Wed., Nov. 20. Regent Square Theater, 1035 S. Braddock Ave., Edgewood

Baumer, tall and long-haired, was 33, but came off younger. He was a performance artist of sorts, goofy yet earnest. In one video from the trip, he told of an encounter with a climate denier that ended happily. “I got a dollar to fight climate change from a guy who doesn’t believe in climate change!” Baumer hollered into the camera. “I’m doing it!”

“When I first came across Mark’s videos, I immediately was fascinated by him as a character, by his sense of humor, by the purity of his vision to combat climate change,” Sokolow said. “He was bringing humor and levity to this very overwhelming issue of climate change, which for me made it easier to interact with. I was also at that point, ‘How can I make a difference?’”

There was, Sokolow would learn, much more to Mark Baumer than his online persona. But she would be unable to discover this first-hand.

Just a few weeks after she saw that first video, Baumer, on the 101st day of his quixotic journey, was struck by a car on a Florida roadside. He died instantly.

In life, the activist had achieved a degree of celebrity, drawing local and national media coverage; in death, he drew more, including a memorial article in The New Yorker.

Sokolow had mutual friends with Baumer. She is also the award-winning, Pittsburgh-based independent documentary filmmaker behind festival favorite “Aspie Seeks Love” (2015) and “Woman on Fire” (2016), which aired on Starz. She reached out to his family and others to begin work on a film.

“Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story” debuted in October at the Heartland International Film Festival, in Indianapolis, where won the best-premiere award for a documentary. Saturday, it receives its Pittsburgh premiere at the Regent Square Theater as part of the Three Rivers Film Festival. Sokolow, along with the film’s crew, and cast members including Baumer’s parents, will attend.

Jim and Mary Baumer are key subjects in the film, recounting their only child’s growing up in Maine a creative kid who loved baseball and ice hockey. Mark Baumer wrote stories and poems prolifically; he once wrote 50 books in a year. He went on to earn a master’s-of-fine-arts degree at Brown University, where he also taught writing and later worked in the library.

But he left it all behind to take another avocation, his environmental activism, to another level. He embarked on his shoeless journey in October 2016, with little more than a small backpack and his smartphone. He walked mostly on roadsides, and even alongside busy highways with no shoulder. The explicit goal was to raise $10,000 in online donations for the environmental group he volunteered for in Rhode Island. But the quest took on a larger symbolic significance, coming as it did during the final stages of that year’s presidential campaign.

In “Barefoot,” candidate Donald Trump, who called climate change a “hoax,” emerges as Baumer’s virtual nemesis. Baumer’s videos include several angry rants against the Republican nominee.

Yet the overall tone of Baumer’s constant stream of online communication – clips of which make up much of “Barefoot” -- is hopeful, even joyful. He walked 10 miles or more each day, including a march through Times Square. In November, some 500 miles in, he passed south of Pittsburgh. (One scene in "Barefoot" takes place in Donegal.) He was devastated by the election outcome, and, in Sokolow’s telling, the trip became a metaphor for persevering in the face of overwhelming odds.

A subplot of the film is the state of Baumer’s feet. Prior to the trip, he had studied barefoot running and conditioned his feet to walking on pavement. En route, he posted seemingly daily photos of his soles, which within weeks were calloused solid and grown wide as pancakes. He walked barefoot even through cold and snow – but road salt damaged his feet too much, and 60 days in, he aborted his northern route and took a Greyhound south to re-launch his pedestrian's journey in Jacksonville, Fla.

On Jan. 21 – the day after Trump’s inauguration – Baumer was walking along a straight stretch of two-lane highway east of Pensacola. In broad daylight, and wearing an orange safety vest, he was struck by an SUV traveling 60 mph that abruptly swerved onto the shoulder. (The driver did not face criminal charges; Sokolow said she was ultimately charged with a $1,161 fine and 6 months' suspended license.)

“Barefoot” was produced by Animal, the Pittsburgh-based outfit behind the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary “Blood Brother” and the ABC series “Downward Dog.” Other support was provided by the Heinz Endowments, the Pittsburgh Foundation, and the Steeltown Entertainment Project.

In addition to the Nov. 16 Pittsburgh premiere, “Barefoot” will screen Wed., Nov. 20. More information is here.

It’s surely cold comfort that after his death, donations to Baumer’s fundraising campaign far exceeded his original $10,000 goal. But Sokolow said she “chose to focus on his joyful personality, and his humor, and the inspiring story.”

“If people watch the film and come away with even a little inspiration from that, or what can I do in my life to make a change, I think that’s a positive thing,” she said.