Marshall Curry's latest film tells the nuanced, complex story of one environmental activist who went too far. Or did he?
Photo by TJ Watt, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
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.
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.
Photo by Roy Milburn, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
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.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is now playing, at IFC Center. Find tickets.
Watch the trailer:
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