Interview: Julie Sokolow on her documentary Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story

Screening as part of the digital Transitions Film Festival, we caught up with Director Julie Sokolow to talk about her new documentary Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story.

What first attracted you to making a film about Mark Baumer?

Back in 2016, a friend of mine frequently shared Mark’s videos on Facebook. I finally clicked on one and was immediately pulled into Mark’s videos documenting his barefoot walk across America. I loved his sense of humor, his fearlessness, and his passion for environmental justice. I kept watching and quickly became a fan. I hoped to collaborate with him one day, after he finished his walk, but never got the chance to. He was killed on January 21, 2017 – the same weekend that Donald Trump was inaugurated. It was terrible to lose a remarkable environmentalist just as a climate change denier was rising to power.

Ultimately, I knew that Mark’s videos needed to be preserved and that his story needed to be told, now more than ever. So I set out to contact his loved ones and embark on making a documentary about Mark’s life. I’m grateful that his family and friends were so kind, generous, and open to collaboration.

In one interview you mentioned that you had wanted to incorporate excerpts from Mark’s book into your film. Was there anything else that made the cutting room floor? Why?

Mark had a YouTube channel containing nearly 500 videos that spanned a decade. I watched and transcribed all of them while preparing to edit the documentary. Within that collection, Mark had a series of videos in which he prank called literary agents and left them long voicemails. The videos are truly strange and contain moments of comedic gold. I spent time trying to edit these into the film, but they ultimately didn’t work. They didn’t advance the story or tell us anything new about Mark, so they sadly didn’t make it into the final film.

In your film Mark comes across as a very charismatic and a somewhat quirky individual. Do you have a favourite anecdote or fact you learned about Mark?

There are so many! I think it’s amazing that Mark wrote 50 books in a year, ate pizza every day for three months straight, and walked across America (with shoes) in 2010. He walked from Tybee Island, Georgia to Santa Monica, California in 81 days and wrote a book about it called I am a Road. He was always taking on epic projects. I think he wanted to inspire and entertain people and show us that we’re capable of more than we think.

What do you think Mark would think about Joe Biden being elected president?

I think that Mark would be relieved to see Donald Trump – a climate change denier – out of office. Now we at least have a shot at tackling climate change and pushing for transformative legislation like the Green New Deal. I think Mark’s views would align with those of the Sunrise Movement. They seem to think that Joe Biden is off to a good start with his executive orders (such as halting the Keystone XL pipeline) and rejoining the Paris climate accord. However, they recognize that transformative changes need to happen ASAP, if we want to stand a chance against climate catastrophe.

Do you think / hope Mark would have enjoyed your film?

Mark’s parents said that Mark would’ve enjoyed the film, and that’s the best praise I could ask for as a filmmaker. They also said that the film portrays Mark accurately and captures his spirit well. It makes me so glad to know that, since I never got to meet Mark in person and always worried about doing his story justice. I’m endlessly grateful to Mark’s family and friends for participating in the film and helping me understand who Mark was (beyond his remarkable trove of self recorded videos).

What do you think he would have done next?

If Mark had successfully completed this walk, I think his story would’ve gone viral and in a much different way than it went viral when he died. I could imagine Mark being featuring on different news programs describing his journey and environmental mission. Maybe Mark would’ve become a prominent activist in his lifetime, sort of like Greta Thunberg but funnier. Or maybe he’d go back to work at the Brown University Library and write books of poetry in his spare time. Who knows. I wish that Mark got to stay on this earth longer so we could all find out.

Did you have any other works (film or otherwise) that you pointed to as inspiration for the way you approached this film?

I watch so many films and they all teach me something new and inspire me in conscious and unconscious ways. I can’t point to any single film and say that it specifically influenced Barefoot. However, I often think about the documentaries that first inspired me to make movies. Those include: The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Crumb, Grey Gardens, and Tarnation. I saw those films in my teenage years and they showed me that documentaries can be character-driven, artistic, and enthralling.

If you could have every reader of this article watch/discover one film, what would it be?

Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story, of course! And then you should see what else is playing at the 2021 Transitions Film Festival.

Barefoot: The Mark Baumer Story is screening at the Transitions Film Festival from 26th February to 15th March. Read my review of the film HERE

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