Rebels with a Cause: an Interview with Filmmakers Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto

MOST OF US have experienced it, that glorious Saturday morning in the Marin Headlands, soaking up the dramatic view of the Pacific from atop a succulent-lined cliff, that feeling of wide open space. And yet, if we squint, we can see the point of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid just over the ridge. The preserved wildlands and coastline of Marin County provides lucky residents with the ability to get away from it all, just miles away from our homes and offices. These rolling hills and pristine reaches of beach have become part of who we are and how we live every day, defining the heart and soul of our county.

Which is why there are those who suggest that everyone who buys a home in Marin should be required to watch the documentary Rebels With a Cause. Some would even argue that every citizen of the United States should see this documentary made by Greenbrae-based, husband-and-wife filmmakers Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto, a film telling the dramatic history of the fight by Marin citizens to preserve open space and parklands across the county. Kelly and Yamamoto have been making award-winning independent films for 25 years, but they had not prepared themselves for the extraordinary nationwide reception given this documentary.

Narrated by actress Frances McDormand, Rebels With a Cause has aired on public television stations regularly for the past five years, has screened at hundreds of film festivals and other public events across the country, and, thanks to a grant from the Marin Community Foundation, is available in every school, college, public library and many environmental organization offices in Marin County.

How did you get the idea to make this documentary?
Kelly: I was at a meeting at KRCB, the public television station in Santa Rosa, when Nancy Dobbs (president and CEO) turns to me and says, “Would you and Kenji be interested in a documentary about saving the Marin- Sonoma coast?” And instead of saying, “Let me talk to Kenji and get back to you,” I went ahead and said “Yes!” I didn’t even consult with Kenji, which I always do. I just said yes. And that was 10 years of work I committed us to.

Why did it feel important to make?
We’ve ridden in, run in, hiked and loved all these open spaces. I had read environmentalist John Heart’s book San Francisco’s Wilderness Next Door in the early ’80s because I wanted to know how it was possible that you could be up on a hill in the Marin Headlands and see the skyline of San Francisco so close. But I didn’t understand how incredible the story was until I started research. One day I sat in the California Room at the Civic Center and read about Congressman Clem Miller, his life and role here in Marin, and I was just like, “Oh my God!” And then I read a congressional record of a hearing in Kentfield when Point Reyes dairy farmer Joe Mendoza spoke vehemently against the park, but later there was a transcript from a hearing in D.C. in front of the Senate and here is Mendoza speaking in glowing terms in favor of the Point Reyes National Seashore. I knew we had to tell this story.

Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto Rebels with a Cause

Yamamoto: Our first impression was that this would be easy to make because it is in our backyard. “Oh, we’ll just drive over the hill and shoot some film.” When Nancy and I started to do research, it was very deep and there was so much we did not know about the history and many battles fought simultaneously to save all this open space. The story was expansive and required a lot of archival research — photographs, film, articles — anything we could find. Certain characters would come to the fore, people like Huey Johnson and Marty Griffin, stalwart environmentalists, and also ordinary citizens, who became a very strong voice. Politicians certainly, but it was ordinary citizens who really valued this open space and could see, in the future, the growth of the Bay Area, how valuable this land was going to be. And not for themselves, but for everybody.

What was unique about the battles here in Marin?
These were ordinary citizens and they realized they could win things. After Point Reyes, they preserved the Bolinas Lagoon, which they did not expect. The next keystone was the Marin Headlands, which was key to creating contiguous parkland reaching the Golden Gate Bridge. That was a formidable task, to face the oil company that owned all the land. It is amazing that they could fight an oil company and win.

How does your film reflect on the struggle between environmentalists and agriculture in Point Reyes that is unfolding now?
What happened here in Marin in the 1960s truly was a partnership between environmentalists and agriculture and I can’t say I stand for one or the other. We are interested in the miracle of what happened in that history. The creation of these open spaces was from the voices of many; they all spoke loudly, the ranchers and environmentalists. It is an interesting marriage, and I hope there isn’t a divorce.

Kelly: Yes, they couldn’t have created Point Reyes National Seashore without the support of agriculture. And I also find it fascinating that in the Bay Area this movement of local, sustainable food could only happen because there was a certain number of farmers out there producing the food that Alice Waters and others began to use. Would we have this food movement if there were not this critical mass of farmers here?

Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto Rebels with a CauseDid you expect the film to take off?
It really surprised us at the world premiere at the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival, the reaction that we felt from the audience. We thought we made a good film but we had very little indication of how it would penetrate the audience emotionally. We would look at each other in amazement at the way audiences were reacting. It was also other places, such as the Cleveland International Film Festival, where they have a park very much like the GGNRA (Golden Gate National Recreation Area) just outside of the center of the city. And that park also is a partnership with agriculture, modeled after MALT (Marin Agricultural Land Trust). We see this model being used and the successful creation of open spaces. The film reminds people there that, yes indeed, this is glorious what we have, which is why it has national implications.

Anything you would like to add?
Rebels premiered five years ago, but people come up to me to this day, and they almost always say, “I’ve always loved those parks, I had no idea … I just thought it was always like that.” So many who visit or live here appreciate our open spaces so much, but have no idea what it took.

Yamamoto: Environmentalism starts at a young age. When a young person goes camping for the first time, that experience doesn’t leave them. At that moment, a child comes to understand the basic meaning of open space of any kind. One night of camping in a preserved space, I think it can change young people.

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto.” 

Kirsten Jones Neff

Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.