With the Oscar-nominated documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, co-directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman turned their camera on an issue that is at once historical and current: The Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a ’90s environmental activist group made up of once-peaceful protestors who took to committing acts of arson after the non-violent demonstrations they had been participating in were ignored by the government and often met with brutality by pepper spray-wielding police. Sound familiar?
When If a Tree Falls came out last summer, the Occupy Wall Street movement had not yet gotten underway, but the tale told in the film—of activism, protest movements, terrorism and civil disobedience—is one that can serve as a cautionary tale in our current climate. But Curry, whose previous films are the the 2005 Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight and the 2009 doc Racing Dreams, didn’t make If a Tree Falls with any particular agenda—environment, political or otherwise—in mind.
Instead, he was intrigued by the story of Daniel McGowan, a former ELF member who was arrested, charged with two counts of multi-million dollar arson and now faces life in prison for his acts of what the government considers terrorism. A business major whose father was a member of the NYPD, McGowan “could be anyone’s little brother or neighbor or son,” says Curry, “and yet he was part of a secret group that committed millions of dollars of damage in America and was called the ‘number one domestic terrorist group in the U.S.’ by the FBI.” McGowan isn’t what most people picture a terrorist being like—in the film, he comes across as a regular guy, albeit one who recycles a bit more assiduously than most.
Curry took the time to chat with MovieMaker about his latest film, the three things he has to have to make a documentary and the unanticipated political relevance If a Tree Falls has gained in the months since its release.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): Did you have any preconceived notions about the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) or eco-terrorism before you started filming? What is it about the subject that appealed to you?
Marshall Curry (MC): The film was really driven more by questions than by any preconceived notion about the ELF. I wanted to understand how a guy like Daniel McGowan—who on the surface seems so mild mannered, who was a business major in college and whose dad was a NY cop—ended up facing life in prison for what the government considered to be terrorism. What was his personal coming-of-age story? How had his political views changed? And what effect did those arsons have on other people? And a larger question: What happens when people feel voiceless? These seemed like important questions—and even more so with the recent emergence of a protest movement in the U.S. and around the world. So [co-director] Sam Cullman and I began meeting people and asking questions, and each person we met stretched our points of view. There are a lot of layers to this story, and when we sat down to edit the film we tried to build in that experience for the audience—peeling back layers—and we tried to push people a little bit out of their comfort zone, no matter where they stood. The film asks a lot of questions and intentionally leaves them unanswered, hopefully to provoke audiences into taking those questions out of the theater and into the world.
MM: Once you’ve decided make a documentary about a complicated, controversial subject (like the ELF in If a Tree Falls) or one you didn’t previously know much about (as with the World Karting Association in Racing Dreams), what’s your first step in actually making the film? How does your moviemaking process start?
MC: There are three things that I want to have before making a documentary. The first is a strong character, the second is a narrative arc—something the main character wants, which he or she will get, or not get, at the end—and the third is an issue that seems complex and interesting to me. With Street Fight, we have two strong characters—Sharpe James and Cory Booker—battling to become mayor of Newark. Who will win? It’s a film about political corruption and also about race, which are [both] endlessly complex. With Racing Dreams, all three kids were extremely charismatic, and the arc was the racing series that they were trying to win. But racing is sort of the McGuffin for the film—it’s really about adolescence and navigating first romance and family struggles.
With If a Tree Falls, Daniel is so interesting, not because he’s the most charismatic revolutionary on the planet, but because he seems so regular. He could be anyone’s little brother or neighbor or son, and yet he was part of a secret group that committed millions of dollars of damage in America and was called the “number one domestic terrorist group in the U.S.” by the FBI. That was interesting to me, that he could be so unlike my expectation of a radical environmentalist. The arc, of course, was his impending trial, and the issues were rich: Activism, environmentalism and terrorism.
Once you have decided that the pieces are there, the process begins with a lot of questions—just an attempt to quench my own curiosity about things that interest me. And also a lot of hanging around and watching people live their lives, so that we can better understand them. We tried to find people who were connected to the case: Other members of the ELF who had done the fires with Daniel, the detective and prosecutor who tried to crack the ELF and the arson victims. And we threw out a wide net, looking for archival material that would tell the story of the emerging [environmental activism] movement in the ’90s.
MM: One of the things I was struck by in watching If a Tree Falls is how candid all the interviews were, from ELF leader Jake Ferguson discussing his decision to cooperate with the FBI to the main ELF investigator talking about how his views of the organization’s members have changed over the years. There seemed to be a high level of trust, especially between you and Daniel. How did you build that trust? Did you have any trouble getting all these people to open up to you?
MC: It was really difficult to get people to talk with us. The activists worried that we would do what the media always seemed to do, which is paint them as crazy terrorists without trying to understand the reasons that they did the things they did. And the law enforcement folks and the arson victims worried that we would edit what they said out of context or try to make them look bad. But I spent a lot of time explaining to people that I was really interested in their points of view, and that the film wouldn’t be [each person’s] point of view, but it would include their point of view. I wanted to let people’s best arguments bang into each other and see the sparks fly. That was more interesting than setting up straw men to knock down. I think that people can sense your sincerity and honest curiosity, and they took a chance with us. In the end, I think they’ve all been happy that they did. People on both sides of the issue—from the former spokesman for the ELF to the prosecutor who put ELF members in prison—have said that they think the film is an honest and important story about complex issues.
MM: Watching the film now, I’m struck by how much it resonates with the issues surrounding the various Occupy movements. Has your experience making the film changed how you look at activism and protest movements?
MC: When the film came out over the summer, it was widely seen as a historical film. Audiences thought the idea of a protest movement in the U.S. was almost quaint. But when the Occupy movement emerged, our film really spoke to a lot of the issues and questions of that movement. It suddenly became extremely relevant, and lots of universities and groups like Occupy Oakland have held screenings to prompt debate. We hope the film will encourage activists to think carefully about the ethics and effectiveness and legal consequences of their tactics. And we also hope that the film will encourage the government and law enforcement communities to think carefully about how they react to activism. There are some reactions that radicalize people and other reactions that bring people into the democratic process, and police need to take a long-term view on their goals. In the ’90s, the police in many cases responded to non-violent civil disobedience with pepper spray, tear gas and billy clubs, and that pushed some of those activists to give up on democracy and start the Earth Liberation Front. Today, we have seen some police making the same mistakes, but hopefully, we can all learn some lessons from the past.
MM: Do you have any subjects in mind that you’d like to tackle for a future documentary?
MC: I have a few different ideas that I’ve been developing, and one doc that I have begun shooting about the former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is now available on DVD and via Digital Download. For more information, visit www.ifatreefallsfilm.com.