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Meet the Oscar-nominated Filmmakers: Marshall Curry's 'If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front'

By IDA Editorial Staff

In the days leading up to DocuDay LA and DocuDays NY, we at IDA will be introducing--and in some cases, re-introducing--our community to the filmmakers whose work has been nominated for an Academy Award for either Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject. As we did in conjunction with last summer's DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, we have asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far, and the impact of an Academy Award nomination.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Marshall Curry, director/producer, with co-director/producer Sam Cullman, of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which is nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category.

Synopsis: In December 2005, Daniel McGowan was arrested by US Federal agents in a nationwide sweep of radical environmentalists involved with the Earth Liberation Front--a group the FBI once called America's "number one domestic terrorism threat." For years, the ELF--operating in separate anonymous cells without any central leadership--launched spectacular arsons against dozens of businesses they accused of destroying the environment: timber companies, SUV dealerships, wild-horse slaughterhouses and a $12 million ski lodge at Vail, Colorado. With the arrest of Daniel and 13 others, the government cracked what was probably the largest ELF cell in America and brought down the group responsible for the very first ELF arsons in this country.

If a Tree Falls tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of this ELF cell, by focusing on the transformation and radicalization of one of its members. Part coming-of-age tale, part cops-and-robbers thriller, the film interweaves a vérité chronicle of Daniel on house arrest as he faces life in prison, with a recounting of the events that led to his involvement with the group. And along the way, If a Tree Falls asks hard questions about environmentalism, activism and the way we define terrorism.





IDA: Marshall, you chose to narrate this story. How did you arrive at this choice?

Marshall Curry: It wasn't an easy decision. In my previous film, Racing Dreams, there is no narration at all, and I like the way the film feels, really unmediated. In Street Fight I used personal narration because my interactions with the characters in the film were a crucial part of the story. With If a Tree Falls, we tried it with no narration, but there's just too much information that needs to be conveyed.  Then we went back and forth between a "voice of God" narrator and a slightly more personal narration. In the end, I settled on the "semi-personal" option, and we open the film with me saying, "In December 2005, four federal agents entered my wife's office and arrested one of her employees..." It seemed like a nice dramatic hook that immediately personalized the story and grounded it, so the audience doesn't have to spend the first act wondering, "Why did they focus on this character?...How did they get access to him on house arrest?...What is the filmmaker's relationship to the character?"  (These were all questions that came up during test screenings of the non-personal version.) We don't belabor the personal narration, though. I considered having personal reflections throughout, about my opinions on activism, about the farm where my grandparents lived and cut timber, etc. But the film has a lot of strong secondary characters with compelling points of view, and it didn't need my voice cluttering it up with another one. 


IDA: This is a film in which you have remarkable access to both sides of the story-the members of the Earth Liberation Front, and their so-called opposition: the FBI, the local authorities, the business owners. How did you communicate your project to both sides and convince them to tell their story on camera?

MC: Getting access to people was probably the most difficult part of the project. The activists didn't trust us because they feared we were going to do what the media always did: sensationalize the story and brand them as terrorists. And the law enforcement and arson victims worried that we were going to sandbag them and edit the film out of context to make them look bad. I spent a lot of time explaining to people that we were honestly interested in what they had to say. The film wasn't going to be their point of view, but it would include their point of view. I wanted to let people's best arguments bang up against each other--that's when the most interesting sparks fly--rather than set up straw men to knock down. And ultimately people took a chance and decided to trust us.


IDA: By achieving this sense of journalistic fairness, you provoke questions about the power and the limits of activism, the semantics of terrorism, the complex nexus of environmentalism, commerce and community.. Yet, in some interviews about this film over the past year, you have expressed some ambivalence about even-handness--"This he said/she said approach to reporting makes me insane," you said to John Anderson in The New York Times. Where might a journalist's quest for fairness go awry?

MC: I think filmmakers should always be fair to their subjects. But that's not the same thing as "he-said/she-said reporting," which--in the attempt to be balanced--ends up sacrificing accuracy.  One person says the earth is flat and another says the earth is round, and the media presents these as if there is a real controversy. You see it in the way they cover campaigns all the time: After a debate, the pundits come on and identify the three things each candidate said that stretched the truth, and I always think, "That's amazing that each candidate said exactly three things that weren't true." By attempting to appear balanced, they are distorting what's really going on. I think the media--and filmmakers are included in that--should be fair in the way a referee is fair.  A good referee doesn't call the same number of fouls on both sides. A good referee calls fouls when he sees fouls. If a Tree Falls has a point of view, but it is a complex point of view, which I think accurately reflects the complexity of these issues and characters. If we had discovered as we were making the film that Daniel was a monstrous sociopath, the film would have depicted him that way. And if we had discovered that he was a blameless saint, the film would have depicted him that way. We didn't show the different points of view because we were trying to be balanced, or were afraid of taking a stand. We showed them because we believed there was real complexity there.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

MC: Access was very difficult, as I mentioned above. Editing was also really hard. This film has a lot of different threads that are all woven together in a tricky way. There's the vérité story of Daniel on house arrest. There's Daniel's back story. There's the back story of the ELF, which eventually meets up with Daniel. And then there's the cops-and-robbers story of the investigation. These all have different timelines and different characters that in some cases overlap and in other cases don't. It was extremely hard to construct the film so that the transitions propel each other rather than feeling like abrupt derailments. Matt Hamachek and I edited some early cuts that were pretty rough, but hopefully, now, when you watch the film, you don't even think about the seams. Hopefully it just seems like the obvious way--the only way-- that someone would tell this story. I feel like editing a documentary is a little like being a CIA agent--if you do your job well, no one ever thinks about you or notices your work.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

MC: There wasn't really pre-production. As soon as Daniel was arrested, Sam Cullman and I started shooting. At first I thought it might be a short, but as we began meeting people it was so much more interesting than I expected. People said things that were surprising and defied my expectations, which I love. We began to unearth archival material that was riveting--young protesters living for a year in an encampment they had built to block a logging road; police forcibly applying pepper spray to activists' eyeballs with Q-tips; buildings engulfed in flames. Every time we came across something new, it stretched our points-of-view and challenged us to think again about these issues. So when Matt and I sat down to edit, we tried to build that zig-zaggy sense of discovery into the film, so the audience would be nudged out of their comfort zones again and again, just as we had been.


IDA: As you've screened If a Tree Falls--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

MC: I've been happy to see that people on all sides of this issue have embraced the film. The former spokesman for the ELF has said that he thinks it is an important and accurate film, and the Federal prosecutor who put the ELF members in prison has said the same thing. 

It has been interesting to see how the emergence of the Occupy movement has changed the way people view the film. This summer, when the film was first released in theaters, people saw it as a historical film. The idea of a protest movement in America seemed quaint and distant to most audiences. But in the fall, as the OWS protests erupted and the government began responding to those protests, the issues in the film suddenly became urgent. There were photos in the paper and video clips on the Web that could have been lifted directly from the movie. Activist groups and universities began doing screenings and having discussions about what kinds of protest tactics are effective. What are ethical? And what are the legal consequences of different tactics?  There have been arguments within the Occupy movement--just as there were in the '90s--about whether property destruction (not arson at this point, but window-breaking and things like that) is ever appropriate.

And the law-enforcement community has also been looking at the film, asking really important questions about how police should respond to non-violent civil disobedience. In the '90s, when police used tear gas and pepper-spray and nightsticks at protests, it radicalized a lot of activists and convinced them that the democratic system was broken. And some of those people decided to take up arson. I think the film is a cautionary tale for activists to think carefully about tactics, and also a cautionary tale to law enforcement to think about their response to activism, because some responses bring people into the democratic argument and other responses radicalize them.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

MC: I watch a big variety of documentaries with different styles and subjects, and constantly try to learn from (steal) the parts that I love.  The vérité gang--Pennebaker/Hegedus, the Maysles, Leacock--first showed me that documentaries could play like a movie, with characters and plot twists and drama. Ross McElwee's Sherman's March showed me how engrossing and engaging it could be to pull back the curtain on the filmmaker. I loved Spellbound for its gentleness and empathy, its ability to get an audience to laugh without sneering. Supersize Me made a polemic entertaining. I remember reading an interview with another documentary director who said that he didn't watch any other films while he was making his film because he didn't want to be influenced by them. But I'm the opposite--when I'm shooting and editing, I will often come into work the morning after watching a film and say, "OK, is there some way we can apply this thing I loved in that film to ours?" 

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front will be screening Saturday, February 25, at 2:15 p.m. as part of DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, and at 4:15 p.m. at DocuDays NY at The Paley Center for Media in Manhattan.