Interview with Marshall Curry, Oscar-nominated director of “If A Tree Falls, A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”

“If A Tree Falls” is a documentary that I found myself deeply respecting, so when I got the opportunity to interview the director, Marshall Curry, I couldn’t refuse. The film itself is one which, as has been said many times of it, asks more questions than it answers. As such, I found that I had many questions to ask one of the main creators of the film.

Tom Ellis: So, this is your second Oscar nomination?

Marshall Curry: Right.

TE: How do you feel being nominated for an Oscar?

MC: It’s great. The main thing is how it attracts attention to the movies. You work so hard on these things, and it’s really hard to get anybody to watch documentaries, so adding something like an Oscar nomination attracts a much bigger audience than you would get otherwise. And it’s fun to get dressed up and rub elbows with George Clooney.

TE: How long did you work on “If A Tree Falls”?

MC: Five years.

TE: And was that concurrent with other films that you were working on?

MC: One other one. So my first film was called “Street Fight” – that was the first one that got nominated. It was about a very controversial and racially charged election in New Jersey. And then I started shooting this one at the same time as shooting one called “Racing Dreams”. It’s about three kids, two boys and a girl, who are 11, 12, and 13, who want to be NASCAR drivers when they grow up. I shot them roughly at the same time and then edited and released that one in 2009 or so, and jumped over and edit this one, and released it last year. Its premier was at Sundance last year.

TE: Through the process of creating this film, how has your perception changed of the topics?

MC: Well, it changed lots of times. The story was kind of driven by questions. How did this guy wind up doing these fires, and then what happened? What was the result of the fires? How was the investigation that brought them down work? But mostly, the initial question was how did this guy wind up doing this thing. To me, he seemed like a very unlikely candidate for radical environmentalist, or somebody who could possibly be facing life in prison for what the government considers terrorism.

His backstory is he’s a kid from Rockaway, Queens, his dad’s a cop, he was a business major in college. It was very unlike my expectation. And so over the course of trying to answer that question, Sam Cullman and I, who worked on the film together, had our points of view stretched again and again and again – by Daniel [McGowan], by the spokesman of the [Earth Liberation Front], by meeting the arson victims, by talking to the law enforcement folks. Each time we met somebody, the things that they would say would push us out of our comfort zones and stretch our points of view.

And so when we sat down to edit it, we tried to build that same experience for the audience. It challenges people, and just when you feel like you’re settled into one spot it upends you and takes you into a different direction.

TE: I’d have to say you succeeded in that. The film definite raises more question than it answers, which is fascinating in a documentary I think.

MC: It’s been funny, there were some people, when it first came out, who did not like that. They really wanted it to answer the questions and to “conclude”. But I feel like these are really complicated things and that any sort of Hollywood ending that we could slap on it would not reflect the real complexity. And so we just decided we are going to ask questions and not resolve them, and let people feel uncomfortable and unsettled at the end of the movie, and walk out and have conversations with their friends about it. And most people appreciate that, but there are definitely some people who didn’t like it for that.

TE: They want Michael Moore to come out and tell you that it’s wrong.

MC: Right.

TE: So taking it back, would you say that the ELF generally formed because of the police’s reaction to the protests?

MC: I would say there are a lot of reasons. I think that the police reaction was part of it. I think that when nonviolent protesters were met with billy clubs and pepper spray and tear gas, it convinced a lot of people that that was a waste of time, and they needed to be more aggressive in their tactics. I also think that there was just a feeling of desperation at that point. Forests of 500-year old… 700-year old trees were being cut down, and these were completely irreplaceable. I think in their minds it’s the equivalent of if somebody started going through France and started knocking down Notre Dame. And so they thought “We have to stop this from happening, by any means necessary.”

So there were a lot of dynamics at play. I think some of them were tactical, some were emotional, a sense of anger and desire to throw sand in the gears of the machines that they saw doing these things. So yeah, I think there were a lot of reasons.

TE: Do you have any ideas as to how police might better respond to protests, such as those in Eugene?

MC: Yeah. I mean, for one, the idea of using violence against those engaged in non-violent civil disobedience is incredibly shortsighted. It convinces people that the system doesn’t work, and it pushes them to step outside of the system. And I also think it backfires. If I was the PR guy for the other side, I would say “Guys, this is so stupid.”

If they never pepper sprayed the people at Occupy Wall St. people, that probably would have flared up and gone away. In doing that, it was the Occupy movement’s equivalent of having “Bull” Connor release the dogs and the hoses on people in the South. And that’s sort of the starting point, that it’s unacceptable, in my opinion, to use violence against people who are engaged in non-violent civil disobedience.

TE: You mentioned Occupy Wall St. Do you see many parallels between now and then [the Eugene riots in the 90’s]?

MC: Yeah, a lot. And it’s interesting because when the movie first came out, the summer we had our theatrical release people by and large saw it as a historical film. There was no protest movement in America, and the idea of a protest movement seemed kind of quaint to our audiences and reviewers. They’d say “Remember back in the ‘90‘s, when there were activists? I wonder if something like that could ever happen again.” And boom, three months later it flares up all over the country.

I think there are a lot of similarities. I think there is a sense among people today that their voices are not being heard, and I think that that was the sense that they had then. I think the way that police responded then radicalized a lot of people. And I think we’ll be seeing that if the police continue to do some of the things that they did at UC Davis, and in New York…

TE: ..and Oakland…

MC: …and Oakland, yeah. There will be people who will say “Enough with the system. Enough with the civil disobedience. We’re going to do something else. We’re going to try something different.”

TE: With the occupation of these squares and whatnot all over the country, what would you think is a better way of reacting to these protestors?

MC: Well, I guess it depends on your goal. If I am the chief of police somewhere, and it has been determined that the square needs to be emptied, I think there are ways of doing that that respect people’s humanity.

But the first question is whether we need to clear these squares. I feel like the Occupy movement has done an incredibly great job of changing the conversation in America that six months ago I never would have dreamed to be possible. I mean, I saw something the other day that said “How many times did the New York Times use the phrase ‘income disparity’ in the previous year, and how many times have they used it since?” And it’s like a 10,000x increase. It’s unbelievable. And I’m sure if you looked at the Congressional record, you’d see the exact same thing, in speeches from Congressmen and the President.

So in terms of changing the conversation, I would say the Occupy group has been incredibly effective. It remains to be seen if they are going to be able to take that to the next level and convert that to political power that actually achieves long term change.

TE: Where is the next level for such a movement that rejects leadership?

MC: To me, anyway, the goal of political movements should be to get your hands on the lever of power and to make change. So to me, that’s the long term goal, unless you feel that there should be no levers of power and it should be distributed evenly across America. My sense is that is a little Utopian…

TE: …not in our short term future.

MC: Yeah.

TE: To shift gears a little bit. How do you feel about the appellation of “terrorist”, which is now being applied to someone such as Daniel McGowan equally with someone such as Osama bin Laden?

MC: Right. That’s one of the big questions of the movie, how do we define this word “terrorist”. And when we talk to the victims of these arsons, they describe being terrorized by these fires. The guy who runs the timber company, whose building was burnt down and whose business was started by his grandfather and destroyed, didn’t know who these people were. He thought that maybe these people were going to burn down his house, or attack his kids. He got an alarm system in his house, and would look underneath his car. Every time he turned his keys he wondered if his car was going to blow up. He didn’t know. And so, in his mind, that was the essence of terrorism – somebody using fear and intimidation to force you to do something.

From the perspective of Daniel and his supporters, these actions were the Boston Tea Party. They were symbolic property destruction. Nobody’s ever been hurt in an Earth Liberation Front action. They were, in fact, careful to scout these locations out to make sure that there was no cleaning lady or night watchman who could be hurt. And they say that that’s preposterous to use the same word to describe symbolic property destruction as somebody whose goal is to kill thousands of civilians.

And somebody has pointed out that if your definition of terrorism is just somebody who imposes fear, then a mobster who shakes down businesses is a terrorist, and somebody in a domestic violence situation is a terrorist. And maybe they are terrorists. But at a certain point you stretch the definition of terrorist to such a point that it doesn’t mean much. After wrestling with it a lot myself, I think we come closest to the police captain of the film, who says that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, and I prefer to focus on crime, or not-crime. Arson is a crime. If someone commits arson, we should try to catch them and put them in prison. Are they terrorists? I don’t know, and I’m not sure that the word terrorism is even a particularly helpful word. I think it may be one of those words that creates more heat than light. It gets people energized and emotionally whipped up, without actually clarifying the topic we are talking about.

TE: Like a scapegoat?

MC: It’s just not precise. It it is very emotional, but without being clear. And I think that’s dangerous language, when you have words that are powerful that way, without being precise.

TE: When did the ELF stop their operations?

MC: The ELF is structured in a cellular structure, so there’s no one in charge, and there’s no membership roles or anything like that. If you and I decided to go tonight and burn and SUV and write “ELF” on the wall, we would be the ELF…

TE: Is that an offer?

MC: (laughs) And as a result, it’s never really ended. The cell that’s the focus of the movement were the group that did the first ELF arsons in America, and the government assumes they were probably the largest group, and that they are responsible for more arsons than any other. They basically stopped right around 9/11, in 2001, and were broken up a few years after that. In December, 2005, they were arrested.

But even since then, while we were editing the movie, there was a big fire in Seattle and a big fire in San Diego that ELF took responsibility for.

TE: So in that time, the perception of terrorism changed pretty drastically?

MC: Well, yeah. After 9/11, people’s sympathies towards anything related to terrorism really disappeared. And I think that’s the reason a lot of people left the group. They realized they didn’t want to be tarred with that same brush. And suddenly the law enforcement community got hundreds of thousands of dollars to pursue terrorism that had not been available before, as well as manpower and resources to capture terrorists – whether they were Islamic terrorists who are looking to kill people, or animal rights or environmental activists who don’t consider themselves terrorists but the government does.

TE: So it seems that… Would you agree that it seems they turned the tactic of terrorism almost into an ideology?

MC: Who did?

TE: Well, the “War on Terror”, for instance. Perhaps it’s a continuation of the Cold War in political culture. We had this great enemy, until 1989, or 1991, of Communism, and then ten years later we have Terrorism. Because political culture is very slow moving.

MC: Right. Well, there’s a guy named Will Potter, who has written a book called “Green is the New Red”, which is similar to that. So in the same way that there was a Red Scare, or attack on communists, he thinks that has been turned on the animal rights and environmental community. I mean, he certainly thinks that.

TE: What do you think?

MC: It’s not a dodge – I honestly do think it’s very complicated. There are a lot of people who do believe it’s terrorism, in their honest beliefs, and there are some people who use the term terrorism to protect their interests. The “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act” expands the definition of terrorism, in its title, to include a lot of things that most people wouldn’t consider to be terrorism.

And I think that people who use the term eco-terrorist… I mean, that term itself was created by someone in the extraction industry. He’s like a PR guy who came up with this incredibly clever phrase which sticks in your tongue, and you see it everywhere. Even people who have seen the movie will use the term “eco-terrorist” to describe these arsons without any analysis of that term.

TE: So they simplify a very complicated thing with a term?

MC: Well, it’s not even that they just simplified it, it’s that they simplified it and super-charged it. I mean, arson – I feel like arson is a crime. If somebody commits arson, I feel like the government should capture them and put them in prison for it. But I don’t know if that qualifies as “terrorism”. But by coining that term, “eco-terrorism”, it takes things like people who break windows, and people who break into chicken factories to save chicken – it defines them as terrorism as well. So yeah, I think it’s a very problematic term.

TE: It could perhaps be applied to Monsanto for suing small organic farms when its seed flies into their fields… If the world was fair.

MC: Right.

TE: How is Daniel McGowan doing these days? Do you hear from him at all?

MC: I do. You know, he’s in this prison that has very restricted access to the outside world, so he has limited access to the outside world, and he has limited phone calls he can make, limited visits – all visits must be through bullet-proof glass, which is very unusual for arson.

I think he’s frustrated to be in that prison, I think he doesn’t think he belongs in there. But it’s a safe prison, it’s not like people are getting stabbed in the bathrooms and stuff. Because it’s so locked down and controlled, it’s actually a safe place to be. He has another year left of his sentence. I don’t speak to him on the phone, or anything like that – because he has such a limited amount of time he says that for his wife and family. But I’ve exchanged a couple of letters with him, and I hear from them how he’s doing. I think he’s eager to get out and get on with his life.

TE: Has he been informed of how much press the film is getting?

MC: Yeah, and I think he’s surprised by it all. When we were shooting – my shooting is very low-key, and we’d keep a small footprint. I think he knew, intellectually, that we were hoping to make a movie that would get a big audience, but I think he is definitely surprised that it had a theatrical release, and a national broadcast on PBS, and of the Oscar stuff – I got a post-card from him not long after that said “My mind is officially blown”. I think it’s amazing to him to have his own life laid out to the world for people to see and have people argue about.

TE: What other kinds of people are in this prison, is it purely terrorists? Or…

MC: Yeah. Primarily, it’s intended for… I’ll get the phrase wrong, but it’s “non-violent terrorists”, or “non-dangerous-terrorists”. It’s mostly Muslim, mostly people who have been convicted of supporting terrorism financially, or through things like that. There are some animal rights people, some people who have been part of the environmental movement. I think John Walker Lindh might have been in his for a little while. It’s kind of a range of people, but mostly people who have been convicted of supporting Islamic terrorism in some way.

TE: Mostly domestic, is it?

MC: Well, all people who were arrested in the United States, but they could have been supporting terrorism in other countries.

TE: Do you have any ideas for your next film?

MC: Yeah, I’ve started shooting a new one. I have a few that I’m developing, but one that I’ve started shooting and have been shooting for a few months, about Lennox Lewis, the former heavyweight boxing champion. He retired as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world about six years ago, and now he’s 47 or so and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He’s got 40 more years of being alive, and the thing that he wanted to achieve so much, and focused his life on achieving, he achieved. And so, what’s next?

TE: How do you go about continuing a documentary that you’ve begun. Do you follow the path that it seems to take? Or do you have a plan beforehand at all?

MC: I like to have plans. I mean, I constantly am making plans and throwing them away, and then making new ones. Usually for me, before I start a film I will have a sense of what the narrative arc is going to be. My first film was about an election, so I knew that there was going to be a beginning, where they announced they were going to run, some stuff is going to happen, and then at the end somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose.

My second film was about these three kids who wanted to be NASCAR drivers. The spine of that film was a five-race series that took place over the course of the year, where these kids drive go-carts that go 70 miles an hour. Sort of the little league for NASCAR. So that imposed a structure, or gave us a structure – who is going to be the national champion of the series?

So with this one, I thought it was going to be to start with him when he was arrested, and end with him going to prison – which was actually the case – but that story ended after a year, and we worked on the movie for four more years after that. A lot of times you have an idea of what the story is going to be, but it takes more directions and gets more complicated, and interesting, and so you follow that.

TE: Interesting. Well, thank you for your time.

MC: Thank you!

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