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Two Sides to Every Story: If a Tree Falls

Marshall Curry's (Racing Dreams, Street Fight) latest film tells the nuanced, complex story of one environmental activist who went too far. Or did he?

Marshall Curry: If a Tree Falls


Director Marshall Curry came out of the gate with Street Fight (TFF 2005), earning an Academy Award nomination for his doc about Cory Booker’s first run for mayor in Newark, NJ. In 2009, the family-friendly Racing Dreams (TFF 2009) followed kids involved in "the Little League of NASCAR." His latest film, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front—which he co-directed with cinematographer Sam Cullman—tells the story of Daniel McGowan, an unassuming New Yorker convicted of “domestic terrorism” for his actions on behalf of the radical environmental group The Earth Liberation Front.


Among other actions, the ELF launched major arsons throughout the 1990s and into 2001, against organizations they deemed harmful to the environment: timber companies, SUV dealerships, wild horse slaughterhouses, the University of Washington, and a $12 million ski lodge in Vail, CO. (They were also instrumental in the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization [WTO] conference in Seattle, which led to massive looting and property destruction throughout that city.)


When we first meet McGowan in If a Tree Falls, the former activist is living under house arrest in a NYC apartment as he awaits trial and weighs his options. As his story unfolds, we learn about Daniel’s winding path to radicalization, the societal factors that led to his destructive activities, his particular “cell” of the ELF, and how he and his peers were brought down by a determined government.


What’s most amazing about this remarkable film is how not black-and-white the issues are. It raises interesting questions: How do we define “terrorism” in our post-9/11 world—should property destruction be characterized as such? (ELF actions have never resulted in the loss of life.) How can governmental responses to civil disobedience inadvertently radicalize people, the exact opposite of what we would want them to do? How can activists' actions actually lead to change?


We sat down with Curry at the Oscilloscope offices last week to talk about his complex, thrilling, and moving film.


Director Marshall Curry


Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story?


Marshall Curry: It started when my wife came home from work and said, “You’ll never believe what happened at work today. Four FBI guys came in and arrested that guy Daniel McGowan.”


Tribeca: Had you met him before?


Marshall Curry: Yeah, he’s someone I knew a little bit through her. But of course, none of us had any idea [about his past]. I was interested in him because he was so unlike my expectation of a domestic terrorist, or even a radical environmentalist. To me, it’s interesting when reality cuts against stereotype. So that was the initial appeal: how did this guy, who doesn’t look like a terrorist, doesn’t talk like a terrorist—he’s kind of mild-mannered—how did he do this thing? And that became the driving question: What circumstances took this guy down this path?


Tribeca: At first, you thought he was innocent?


Marshall Curry: For a number of months, he told us he was innocent; I definitely had doubts. I thought that there was a decent chance he had done it—partly because he would talk about how life in prison wasn’t an appropriate punishment for property destruction. Well, if somebody had fingered me for something I had nothing to do with, that’s not what I would be saying. I would be saying, “I had nothing to do with this! I am totally innocent! This is crazy!” And he would also talk about “snitches” who had cooperated with the government. To me, a snitch is somebody who tells on somebody who did something, not somebody who makes something up and pins it on a completely innocent person.


But as a film, it almost didn’t matter: either it was going to be the story of this innocent activist wrongfully accused, or it was going to be the story of this guy from Rockaway, Queens—whose dad’s a NY cop, who was a business major in college—who committed multi-million dollar arsons. Either one is an interesting story. When we edited the movie, Matt Hamachek and I originally built a whole first act that was, “I’m innocent,” and you weren’t sure whether he did it. But after a while we decided: that’s not what’s interesting. So we just opened the movie with, “In 2001, I did this fire, but it’s more complicated than you think.”


Tribeca: Was Daniel at all reluctant to open up to you?


Marshall Curry: It was a constant negotiation. At the beginning, he couldn’t give us information that the prosecution could subpoena: suddenly, there’s a tape where he’s explaining what he did? No. So that stuff only came after he had gone public with his story. But even just spending time with him [when he was under house arrest] was a negotiation. He was depressed, he wasn’t getting exercise, he was just cooped up in this house for 7 months; I think that took a toll. And also he was about to go to prison because he had opened his mouth on tape [in front of one of his fellow activists, who agreed to cooperate with the government as part of a plea deal], so the irony of sitting down with somebody with a video camera was not lost on Daniel.


Marshall Curry: If a Tree Falls


Tribeca: What did Daniel tell you about the motivation for his actions?


Marshall Curry: Between the time he told us he had done it and the time he went to prison, there are a couple of longer interviews where he describes the fires, where he describes going to the WTO [in Seattle in 1999] and smashing windows: what that meant to him and how that felt, and how that brought the group together. And he also describes seeing the teargas used in Eugene.


[A pivotal sequence in the film is the story of activists who tried to prevent the cutting down of historic old trees in downtown Eugene, slated for removal to make room for a parking lot. The City Council scheduled a hearing where activists could air their grievances, but then the tree removal was rescheduled for the day before the hearing. Protesters climbed the trees as a form of resistance, and the police used aggressive teargas tactics.]


Tribeca: The teargas footage you use is shocking. What was your reaction when you first saw it?
Marshall Curry: Oh, it just blew my mind. I couldn’t believe it.


Tribeca: Was that on the national news?


Marshall Curry: I don’t think so, no. But it was certainly on local news. If you go to Eugene, and you talk to any activists, within 20 minutes that story will come out. Because I would say: “We have a democratic system. If you don’t like cutting down old-growth forests, there’s a process for dealing with that; it’s called democracy.” And they would say, “Let me tell you a story about how that process doesn’t work. All we wanted in this case was to get the City Council to wait one day, so that the citizens could come and talk to them, and this is what we were met with.” That—and other stories like it—motivated a lot of people to say, “You know what? This system does not work.” There are lots of examples like this, where civil disobedience was met with very aggressive tactics, and that radicalizes people.


Tribeca: Do you struggle with keeping your films void of your own point of view? What’s your documentary philosophy? Do you consider yourself a journalist?


Marshall Curry: I definitely have a point of view, and the point of view is reflected in the movie, for sure. And frankly, to varying degrees, all journalism has a point of view—I mean, as objective at The New York Times purports to be, those reporters pick their words, they order their paragraphs, they interview the people they interview, they pick the quotes that they use. I think it’s totally fine, and I think it’s worth acknowledging.


But I also have journalistic standards, which to me means: you don’t take the things people say out of context, you don’t set people up and then cut right before they say “but” to make them look stupid. So that to me is the line. But Street Fight is a movie that has a good guy and a bad guy—there’s some complexity there, but it’s not the CNN story of the Newark election. It’s, “Listen, these guys are not the same.” And to pretend like they are is actually to tell a less accurate story.


In the case of If a Tree Falls, people say, “I loved how balanced it is.” It’s balanced, but it’s not balanced because I feel some slavish obedience to, “If you ask one side, then you have to ask the other side.” It’s balanced because I think it’s complicated. And if I didn’t think it was complicated, then the movie wouldn’t be complicated. Gay rights? Not a complicated issue for me. If I were making a movie about that topic, I might show the other side as just a point of interest, but it would not be a difficult struggle for me. Civil rights? It’s not like you say, “Martin Luther King said this; Bull Connor said this.” There’s an innate difference. So this movie is complex because I think the story and the issues are complex.


Marshall Curry: If a Tree Falls


Tribeca: I remember driving through northern Oregon into Washington State with a friend for the first time, and how shockingly depressing we found all the clearcut land and logging trucks. We had never seen that before. Was this all new to you too?


Marshall Curry: I like the outdoors, and I’ve backpacked in North Carolina. And I’d done a little bit out west, but not a ton. So a lot of this was educational—finding out about the logging industry, about the environmental movement. I mean, I read The New York Times—that’s my environmental activism… he said with a laugh. [laughs] So this was not my world; this was me wanting to find out about a world.


I don’t think I’d ever seen a clearcut until I was working on this movie. And I don’t think I realized they cut down 500-year-old trees, either. Why would they do that? For sure, those are a protected part of the National Forest. Learning about the relationship between the Forest Service and the timber industry—the extraction industry in general: coal, etc.—that was all new to me. I thought the Forest Service was there to protect the forest. And friends who are involved with the environmental movement, or who live out west, would laugh at me… only a New Yorker could think the Forest Service was there to protect the forest. But that’s what I thought.


The aerial shots—you just see forest, forest, forest, and then Boom! You hit this thing that’s just huge, like someone just took a razor blade and shaved it. Really unbelievable.


Tribeca: People are a bit on edge about your film. What happened at the Seattle Film Festival?


Marshall Curry: About 2 minutes into a screening, they suddenly stopped he film, cleared the theater, and brought the police in. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but I think there was a guy who looked sort of sketchy and had a backpack, who left a couple of minutes into the movie. And they just got nervous. On one hand, you completely get it, because if something blows up in your theater, then you sure wish you’d stopped the movie to check it out. But I think also, people were quite cautious because Seattle is where the WTO was, and it’s where the University of Washington fire was.



Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from If a Tree Falls?


Marshall Curry: I studied religion in college, and when I was graduating, one of my friends said, “I’m still confused, but just at a higher level.” And I think that’s what I want—I don’t think there are easy answers. The main questions are: How do we define terrorism? What kind of tactics are appropriate for activists to take? How should we effect change when we care about something? How shouldn’t we? These are things that I feel get shorthand answers most of the time. We sort of throw around the word "terrorism," and in activist communities, people talk about tactics, but without careful consideration.


Cara Mertes said to me the other day that she thinks that the movie doesn’t tell people what to think, but it tells them what to think about. I think that was a neat way of putting it. And so that’s the goal, I think. We’ve talked about wanting to be a cautionary tale for activists—to think about the legal and ethical and practical ramifications of the choices they make: What are the specific goals that they are going for, and what are the strategies for achieving those goals? And I also want it to be a cautionary tale for the rest of society—to acknowledge that the way we react to activists can either radicalize people or bring people into the democratic process.


Our press materials have 2 blurbs: one from the prosecutor on the case—who spent years and years trying to put these people in prison—saying that he thinks the movie reflects the complexity of the situation, and that he wants people to see it. And then we have another quote right next to it from the spokesman from the ELF saying the same thing. To me, that’s pretty great, when you can have those two sides look at this thing and say, “There’s value in the complexity and the nuance of this story.”


If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front opens Wednesday, June 22, at IFC Center. Find tickets.


Like If a Tree Falls on Facebook.


Find Marshall Curry's other films on Netflix.


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