If a Tree Falls

PBS Premiere: Sept. 13, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is 'If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front' about?

Marshall Curry: The film tells the story of Daniel McGowan, who was a radical environmentalist who burned a couple of timber facilities in Oregon when he was part of the Earth Liberation Front. I stumbled on this story, or it sort of dropped in my lap. My wife runs a domestic violence organization in Brooklyn. One day she came home from work and told me that four federal agents had walked into her office that day and arrested one of her employees. It was this guy, Daniel. I knew him a little bit and his background was the opposite of one you might think a radical would have. He'd grown up in Rockaway, Queens. His dad was a cop in New York. He was a business major in college. I thought, how could this guy be somebody who winds up facing life in prison for terrorism? That was what kicked off the story. Sam Cullman, who eventually shot and co-directed the film with me, and I decided to find out.

POV: How did you persuade McGowan to participate in the film?

Curry: He was in trouble because he had opened his mouth on tape. He ended up getting recorded by an informant. So, he was reluctant to let somebody into his house, into his life with a camera. But, I think he felt he had a story that was important for people to know about, and that people needed to think a little bit about activism and terrorism, more specifically the way we use the word "terrorism." Ultimately, he took a leap of faith.

POV: In McGowan, you have a character who is in some legal jeopardy. Does that raise any ethical issues, or does his participation in the film affect the outcome?

Curry: For much of the time when we were filming, he was saying that he was innocent — which he needed to do. Until you've pled guilty, you'd be a fool to tell an independent filmmaker, "Psst, by the way, I actually did do it." For a while when we were shooting, he needed to be careful about what he said. After he took a plea bargain, there were no holds barred. When we were editing the film, we originally thought that that would be a very significant part of the arc of the story — this question of did he do it, did he not do it? After a while we began to realize that wasn't the interesting story. What's interesting is why and how this happened and what were the events that led him to do it, not whether he did it or not. We decided to edit in a completely different way. The very first thing he says is "In 2001, I participated in these fires as part of the Earth Liberation Front. People consider me a terrorist, but it's more complicated than you think." That's the thesis statement for the movie: It's more complicated than you think.

POV: How did you persuade the other participants, particularly Tim Lewis and Suzanne Savoie, to share their experiences as part of this chorus of voices?

Curry: I would say access was definitely the biggest challenge. Ultimately, I had to spend time explaining to people what my actual goal was. I had to look people in the eye and say, "This movie is not going to be just your point of view. I'm going to be talking to people who disagree with you. But, I promise you that I will never edit you out of context. I'm not going to cut right before you say, 'But…'" To me, the most interesting films are films that take very strong points of view and bang them up against each other and let sparks happen. The goal of the film ultimately is to try and nudge everybody out of their comfort zone a little bit. I don't think that we're going to turn an Earth Liberation Front supporter into a prosecutor. And I don't think we're going to turn the prosecutor into an Earth Liberation Front supporter. That wouldn't be the goal. I think that after watching the film, all those different people have been stretched a little bit. I know my point of view as I was making the film got stretched every time that we met somebody new and talked to somebody new.

POV: How was your point of view challenged?

Curry: Every time we talked to people, they shifted us a little bit. It's easy to say, "Well these fires are just property destruction." That was something that a lot of people said: "They're just property destruction." Then you go and meet with the owner of the timber facility, and he says, "First, let me show you these photos." You see the photos of the fires and they're huge. And they're scary. He says, "Well after these fires, I didn't know who had done them… You know, every time I got in my truck and turned the ignition key, I wondered if it was going to burst into flames. Or, I wondered if they were going to come and burn my house down." Then you go out in the woods and you see stumps of trees that are 700 years old, 1,000 years old. That's not to say that Steve Swanson was cutting those trees down, but there were irreplaceable resources that were being destroyed during those years. You can replant a tree, but you can't replant a 700-year-old tree. It takes 700 years to grow a 700-year-old tree. At the end of the film, the prosecutor on the case has a really amazing line. I had done probably a two and a half hour interview with him, and at the end, just before he took his microphone off, I said, "Has this case changed you at all? Has there been anything that surprised you as you were working on the case?" He says, "When I started off I saw these people as mug shots and I just saw their criminal behavior. But as I've worked on this investigation — I still think that their behavior is criminal, I still think that they should go to prison — but I've started to understand by looking at their background and looking at their lives and looking at the things that they cared about what took them to the point where they have found themselves."

POV: Working off of that, there is a theme in the film of the line between criminality and terrorism, and it's something you address repeatedly. How did you approach it and did your perspective on it change?

Curry: Ultimately, I think Sam Cullman, the co-director, and I feel most comfortable with one of the last lines of the terrorism debate. The detective, a police captain who worked on the case for years, says, "I don't know, is it terrorism?" He says, "It's true — one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist." I think that the word terrorism is one that creates more heat than light. It might be a word that we do better not even to include in our vocabulary, just because it's so radioactive and yet so imprecise. Lisa, McGowan's sister, grew up in Rockaway, Queens. There are a lot of New York firefighters and cops who live there. In fact, that's an area of New York that lost more husbands and dads than any other in New York City on 9/11. She says, "I was here on 9/11. I don't need you to tell me that these people are terrorists. I know what terrorism is. And to call my brother, who won't even eat meat because he doesn't want to harm animals, a terrorist, to use the same word to describe Al Qaeda and my brother doesn't make any sense." I was a religion major and really wanted to figure out if there was a God and how we should live our lives. When I graduated, one of my friends said to me, "I'm still confused, but just at a higher level." In some ways after having made this film, we're still confused, but hopefully at a higher level. We're not trying to answer people's questions about activism and terrorism and all of these things. We're mostly trying to elevate the conversation a little bit and have people discuss it and think about it in a more nuanced and more complex way.

POV: How do you see yourself — as a journalist, as an artist, a storyteller? What is it in particular in the documentary form that can take these complicated stories and give them a space to be laid out without providing neat solutions?

Curry: As far as the balance between being a journalist, being an artist, being a storyteller — documentary filmmakers are all three of those things. The balance between them is affected by the film itself, the topic of the film. A lot of times when we were editing, Matt Hamachek and I would say, "Okay, if this were a fiction film what would happen now?" That was a way of taking off our journalistic hats and putting on our storytelling hats. If I were writing an article for the newspaper, it would be, thesis statement, information, information, supporting arguments. That would be the set up. When I'm making a documentary, the pacing of the film and the way that you sort of switch from character to character — all of those are more about storytelling than straight journalism.

POV: You talked about some of the footage of the police response to the protest against trees being cut down. How did you find that?

Curry: There are two main chunks of archival footage. A lot of it came from Tim Lewis, who is a subject in the film. In some ways, he is our narrator. He was a guy we just stumbled upon. We were looking for someone in Oregon to film people walking up the courthouse steps. Since we're based in New York, we didn't want to fly out for just this one hearing where we would see people walk up and down the courthouse steps. So we put an ad on Craigslist, and he answered it. The next time we went out to Eugene, we got together with him and he said, "I've also got some footage you might want to take a look at." It turned out that he had been collecting footage for years. Most of it he shot himself, but much of it he held for other activists. He was kind of a repository for activists' footage and they gave it to him. He had this unbelievable archive of so many important moments that were part of our story.

POV: In the film, there is a section where you look at McGowan's increasing radicalization. It's very interesting when he's talking about going to Wetlands, a venue in New York City where he watched documentary films, and how those films played a part in his radicalization. I was wondering, as a filmmaker, what are your thoughts on that and the role of documentaries in both engaging audiences and motivating them to be participants?

Curry: The goal of this film is to get people to think about environmentalism and activism, maybe for the first time. I think it's less of a call to action than it is a cautionary tale. It's a cautionary tale for activists to think carefully about the way that they try to achieve change, about the tactics, the ethical and legal factors and effectiveness of tactics. It's also a cautionary tale for the rest of society. We need to think carefully about the way that we respond to activism, because there are certain types of responses to activism that radicalize people and there are certain kinds of responses to activism that bring people into the democratic process. Meeting nonviolent activism with physical abuse or pepper spray or things like that is counterproductive and, in fact, it radicalizes people instead of inviting those people to take part in democracy.