Judi Bari documentary at film festival

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Environmental activist Judi Bari lived at the red-hot center of political controversy through most of the 1990s, and even after two decades, the mention of her name arouses strong passions.

As leader of the environmental protest group — Earth First! — her campaign against the logging of old-growth redwoods made her an icon to some and an opponent to others.

Now, 15 years after her death, Bari will be honored at a Santa Rosa International Film Festival event next weekend called "Celebrate the Life of Eco Heroine Judi Bari," which includes a screening of the new documentary film, "Who Bombed Judi Bari?"

The first obvious question is whether the film will answer its own question, posed in the title.

Will the film finally name those responsible for the 1990 Oakland pipe-bomb explosion in Bari's car that severely injured her and embroiled her in a federal investigation and high-profile civil trial?

Darryl Cherney, the Humboldt County musician, activist and Bari ally who produced the film, is leaving the question open, even though the investigation of the case was closed long ago.

"It's not a whodunit. The film just shows you facts, as Judi Bari discusses them," Cherney said. "Then you make your own conclusions."

After years of working on screenplays for a dramatic film based on the Bari case, with noted director Michael Apted involved at one point, Cherney decided on a documentary made up mostly of footage of Bari herself, telling her own story.

The key event in that story took place on May 24, 1990. Bari, who lived outside Willits, was injured by a pipe bomb that exploded in her car as she and Cherney traveled through Oakland on an organizing tour for their "Redwood Summer" protest.

During a FBI and Oakland Police investigation, pursuing a suspicion that the pair was transporting explosives, Bari and Cherney were arrested but later released for lack of evidence.

After years of delays and legal wrangling over a federal civil rights suit filed by Bari and Cherney against the FBI and Oakland Police for false arrest, she gave her deposition in the case. Her videotaped testimony forms the core of Cherney's 93-minute documentary, directed by Mary Liz Thomson.

"That was in 1996, when Judi was dying of cancer," Cherney said. "We needed her testimony for the jury."

On March 2, 1997, Bari died of breast cancer at age 48.

Finally, in 2002, a jury concluded the long-delayed civil trial in Oakland, ordering four FBI agents and three Oakland Police officers to pay a total of $4.4 million in damages for violation of Bari's and Cherney's civil rights.

Despite Cherney's efforts through the courts to collect evidence and reopen the criminal investigation, the case remains unsolved, after years of rumors, theories and debate.

"I believe the bomber is findable," Cherney said.

Meanwhile, the documentary has been screened from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, and Cherney believes it stands on its own as a portrait of an influential historical figure.

He sees Bari's efforts as a precursor of the Occupy movement that started on Wall Street and spread across the country.

"She basically popularized the idea of occupation, getting people to camp out in protest and stay for long periods," Cherney said.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@ pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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