Who Bombed Judi Bari? is one of the most extraordinary documentaries -- actually one of the most extraordinary films -- I have ever seen. It accomplishes something extremely out-of-the-ordinary: It not only substantially and vividly makes its point about environmental issues and the sizable contribution environmental activist Judi Bari made during her lifetime, but as it progresses it enters the domain of the "transcendental," the rarest of cinematic feats.
Who Bombed Judi Bari? is much, much more than an environmental activist documentary. Directed and edited by Mary Liz Thomson, and produced by Darryl Cherney (who endured the bombing and its aftereffects alongside Judi), it creates an intense, often amusing, wrenching, and ultimately extraordinarily inspiring cinematic experience. Compounding its excellence is that it speaks to this moment in the history of the U.S. and the world. Though the film centers on the life of environmental activist Judi Bari (from 1990 until her death from cancer in 1997), it addresses the evil of the corporate mentality and the impact its destructive practices continue to inflict on the planet. Such corporate manipulations persist, essentially unabated, to this very moment, rendering Judi's story as vitally pertinent as when she lived it. Who Bombed Judi Bari? champions one individual's determination to do good and receive justice (in Judi's case, even beyond the grave). Shakespeare's Mark Anthony said, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft' interred with their bones." Judi's "good" is absent from her mausoleum.
Judi Bari's long experience with union organizing and activism ultimately led to her being a highly effective environmental activist, working with an organization called Earth First, whose mission was to stop the clear cutting of old-growth redwoods in California. It turns out that Judi was too effective for her own well-being. On May 24, 1990, forty-year-old Judi Bari and her boyfriend at the time, Darryl Cherney, were driving through Oakland, California. Being musicians as well as activists, they were on a concert and speaking tour recruiting participants for "Redwood Summer," a campaign of nonviolent mass protests against corporate raiders' clear-cut "liquidation logging" of the old-growth redwoods. While they were driving on an Oakland street, a powerful bomb exploded, nearly killing Judi and wounding Darryl Cherney. Both had received written death threats, some of which were in the car with them at the time the bomb went off.
What ensued appeared to be a deliberate conspiratorial effort concocted by the FBI and the Oakland police (with obeisance to political forces) to frame the couple for knowingly transporting the bomb (instead of it being a case of the attempted murder of them). Both were arrested for allegedly transporting explosives. Only five days after the bombing, a letter claiming responsibility from someone self-identified as "The Lord's Avenger" was received by a Santa Rosa, California newspaper. The authorities never rigorously pursued that lead, though the letter contained information affirming its reliability. A year after the bombing, Judi and Darryl Cheney filed a civil rights law suit against both the FBI and the Oakland Police Department, which ultimately went to trial in 2002, five years after Judi's death.
The documentary is framed by a video of Judi Bari, made a month before her passing while in the final stages of terminal cancer, giving a long, court-ordered deposition. The film returns to this video several times as the story unfolds. Due to her advanced cancer, she is too weak to sit up and is reclining as she answers her attorney's questions. (Strangely, the opposing attorneys declined their opportunity to ask questions.) The questions he asks lead to footage of her history and Judi's activist work, her and Darryl performing music, the environmentalist meetings, the speeches, and the variety of often inventive protest actions. The footage used in the film, except for several shots of contemporary redwoods, is solely archival. There are no History Channel-like reenactments. Shown are Judi speaking, and people taking protest actions, often facing arrest to stop the decimation of the redwoods. This contemporary footage creates a sense of intimacy with Judi's personality, and introduces her fellow activists. Long before the close of the documentary, you "know" Judi Bari and her compatriots, and the force of her ever-present determination to save what was left of the old growth redwood forests in California. She never relents, while never losing her abundant sense of humor. She unwaveringly persists, but remains ever human.
What makes the cinematic narrative work so extraordinarily well is the masterful editing and directorial skill of Mary Liz Thomson, the editor/director. With the film anchored on the court reporter's poignant video of Judi (let's call it her "death bed deposition"), a complex story is told exclusively using preexisting footage from various sources, including television news broadcasts, interviews, film-collective footage, home movies, etc. Ms. Thomson weaves an astonishingly cohesive visual and aural mosaic from it all. She and the producing team must have spent hours and hours pouring through a mass of footage from diverse sources (and varying image and sound quality), evaluating each segment, and placing them in just the right sequence and in meaningful juxtapositions. Here is fine-tuned painstaking artistry at work. Ms. Thompson obviously could not go out and "reshoot" anything, therefore the images sometimes have a grainy, uneven, or ad hoc feel, but this only enhances the spontaneous and "be there now" quality the film possesses. Even after Judi leaves the picture, both physically and visually, that immediacy remains until the final credits.
Complementing the powerful imagery and storyline of Who Bombed Judi Bari? is its richly diverse musical soundtrack, which includes a live version of "Angel from Montgomery," performed by Bonnie Raitt, and a live version of "Shady Grove" by the David Grisman Quartet. There are thirty other musicians providing both songs and instrumentals, including Matt Butler and the Redwood Project, Joanne Rand, Joe Craven, Alice DiMicele, and Seattle's Jim Page, to name a few. In addition, we hear the fiddle and voice of Judi herself along with Darryl's guitar and voice.
The bomber (whose identity remains unknown to this day) intended Judi to die in 1990, but she lived on until 1997. Though in constant pain for the duration, and not able to be as active as she had been prior to the bombing, she still inspired a generation of non-violent environmental activists -- and her story does not end with her passing. The viewer is taken into an uncanny and transcendental realm: Though she is absent from the film's footage after 1997, the filmmakers have made sure that Judi Bari is ever-present beyond her death: she is invisibly but palpably there with the multitude of lawyers, Darryl, the press, her friends -- and now with us. I have never had such a profound sense of an absent person's presence than in the last several minutes of the film: as the winning verdict in the case awarding Judi Bari's Estate and Darryl Cherney $4.4 million as compensation for violating both their First and Fourth Amendment rights was announced, I imagined her just off screen, joining in the jubilation.
At the end of the screening I attended, when the lights came up, no one talked or moved in the hushed silence for at least what seemed like a full minute. Perhaps the audience was sharing the quiet, reflective mood evoked when a work of art moves the viewer to a greater sense of the possibilities of their own humanity.
Note: Because the FBI refused to investigate the bombing and the subsequent admission letters, the person or persons who planted the bomb were never identified. The producer of this film is offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the bomber. This is not an idle gimmick: producer Darryl Cherney (who was wounded in the bombing) and others interested in comprehensive justice would really like an answer to the "who" in the film's title.
Also worth noting: Ed Asner, activist and actor, will be introducing Who Bombed Judi Bari? at the 4:00 PM screening on Friday, November 16 at the Quad Cinema. Both director Mary Liz Thompson and producer Darryl Cherney will be in attendance. The Quad screenings are also an opportunity for voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to view this amazing film, which is competing for Best Feature Length Documentary. - Jay Reisberg
Quad Cinema, November 16 through 22, 2012. Screenings at 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM.
Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.