Marshall Curry has profiled NASCAR hopefuls and Newark Mayor Corey Booker (which earned him an Oscar nomination), and his latest, If A Tree Falls, follows the plight of Daniel McGowan, a former member of the Earth Liberation Front, a group that the F.B.I. once dubbed "America's #1 domestic terrorist threat." Curry traces McGowan's journey from his identity as the mild-mannered son of an NYPD officer to a radical environmental activist in the Pacific Northwest, carrying out arson in the name of the ELF, and back again. McGowan faces a life sentence plus 335 years for committing acts of terrorism, and his guilt is never in doubt. But the movie forces us to think about who a "terrorist" is, and how our society treats citizens who feel that they have no voice.
Hailed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, among others, the film is one of 15 documentaries on the Academy's short list this year, and the official nominees will be announced tomorrow (UPDATE: the film was nominated). If you have a Netflix account, you can stream the movie now. We spoke with Curry about the parallels between the environmentalist movement and Occupy Wall Street, what a "terrorist" is exactly, and the Academy's new rules that concern the nomination process for documentaries.
There's some footage that you included in If a Tree Falls from the Warner Creek blockade in the mid-90's, where activists were attempting to stop logging in a national forest in Oregon. Their encampment looks exactly like Zuccotti Park—the tents, the signs, everything. And it's destroyed by the police, just like the Zuccotti encampment was. In what ways are eco-terrorism and "economic inequality terrorism," as the authorities might call it, similar, and in what ways are they different?
I think there are a lot of thematic similarities between what happened in the 90s, in the environmental movement, and what we see now with the Occupy movement. There there are things that I was seeing on television as the Occupy movement was being covered that seem to be almost lifted from the movie. Whether it's scenes like the one you describe where folks were being evicted from an encampment where they were trying to keep logging trucks from getting into the forest, or whether it was the use of pepper spray by police to go after non-violent protestors.
We saw it in Zuccotti and it's similar to the WTO protests and a number of other places in the 90s in the film. And what's been interesting is when the film came out in the theaters this summer, it was a couple of months before the Occupy movement had started, and a lot of people kind of saw protest movements in the United States as a quaint historical event. There was no discussion of a current protest movement about to happen. And as soon as it happened it really seemed to follow the playbook, and I feel like the film could be a cautionary tale both for activists to consider the types of tactics that they're engaging in, and also for law enforcement to think about how they're reacting to activists because I think there are some responses to activism that radicalize people and other responses that bring people into the democratic argument.
When you hear the word "terrorism," which plays a huge part in your film, all of us sort of immediately gravitate towards 9/11, but you point out that the laws used to prosecute the protagonist, Daniel McGowan, were set after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The Times article on your movie points out that the Earth Liberation Front was the "number one domestic terrorist threat" in the U.S. in 2001. But further down on that same list were militia groups that had planned on attacking national guard armories in Florida, people who sounded considerably more bent on killing people than the ELF has. In your opinion, should there be a specific law on the books that links terrorism to murder to injuring others? Should it remain as this nebulous law that the authorities can use at their discretion?
You know, that's one of the big questions of the film is how we define terrorism and, I think that it's a complicated question. The people whose businesses were burned will tell you that they felt terrorized by those actions, even though, as supporters of the ELF will point out—no one has ever been hurt or killed in any Earth Liberation Fund action. So I think it's tricky and ultimately, my position probably comes closest to the police captain in the film who spent a lot of time trying to break up the ELF. He says, "I just like to just focus on crime and non-crime. Arson is a crime and if you commit arson, then the government should try to catch you and you should go to jail for it." But whether it's terrorism or not, I'm not sure that that helps clarify or contributes productively to the conversation.
Right. That quote you got from the prosecutor at the end of the film, where he articulates that as time goes by and he sees things more in black and white was amazing. Did you get a sense that he and the detective viewed these people as terrorists? Or were they viewing these people as criminals? Did they want the terrorism charges to stick?
I think that the prosecutor, you know, by the end of the film does feel ambivalent about the group not that he excuses the arsons. He thinks that these folks should go to prison. And he was part of the team that was arguing for the terrorism enhancement so he feels like it does fit the statutory definition of terrorism. I think what he was reflecting on at the end of the film is the humanness of the people, and saying let's get a little bit beyond viewing our opponents as two dimensional mugshots and instead, try to understand a little bit about who they are as people. You know, what the path was that took them towards committing these crimes. And that was a major goal of the film: to say listen, I don't support arson, but it's important for us as a society to look at people who feel that they have no voice. And to think about what the possible ramifications are of having members of our society feel completely voiceless.
You include some footage in the film of the WTO protests where a woman is interviewed about property destruction, and after she spends a minute condemning it, whoever's manning the camera says, "Do you support the Boston Tea Party?" and she says, "Of course." Is property destruction, or "monkeywrenching" as the ELF called it, a viable tactic? Is it a symptom of voiceless people trying to have a voice or lawlessness?
Well, certainly members or Earth Liberation Front pointed often to the Boston Tea Party as an example of property destruction that is generally considered to have been on the right ethical side of that fight. They point to that because for them it's not really a question of whether property destruction is evil, it's just a question of whether the property destruction is supporting a cause that feels important to you. For lots of Americans, the Boston Tea Party was on the right side and so we have a generally positive feeling towards it. I think there are lots of people who think given today's political climate, they're not as interested in seeing property destruction and who maybe don't care as much about the environment and environmental causes. It doesn't feel as urgent to them so they don't feel like it warrants such extreme tactics.
Speaking of urgency, President Obama cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline today and maybe you can call him slightly kinder to the environment than President Bush. Do you see the ecoterrorism movement going away? Has it manifested itself into something else?
I think there will always be people who feel that America, whether its Democrats or Republicans in charge, is not taking care of the environment as well as it should. I mean, in the 90's, Bill Clinton was the president and had been president for two terms when a lot of this stuff was happening. But I also do think that the farther the country moves from from taking the stewardship of the planet seriously, the more panicked and frustrated some folks will become. And often when people become frustrated they resort to extreme tactics.
And you know, I feel like there is a lot of overlap with the Occupy movement, but I wouldn't want there to be some implication that I think that the Occupy movement has, you know, lurking eco-arsonists in their midst. Or that I consider them terrorists at all.
Yeah, I've actually been somewhat amazed at the restraint of the protestors and the police alike. There was one night where they were dumping garbage out but, at least in New York City, no windows were ever broken. I never saw bottles being tossed, I never saw any sort of the stuff that happened at the WTO or that you see the video feeds coming back from Egypt. That violence hasn't materialized yet.
Though, out West there was a little bit of that. And I know there were big arguments within the group of whether that is productive or counter-productive. Again, it’s really similar to the arguments that were happening in the 90's at the WTO and places like that.
That's true, especially in Oakland. Why are activists out there so much more open to those tactics whereas protesters on the east coast are much more hesitant to embrace them? Can you pinpoint a specific difference in those two groups?
Marshall Curry (IMDB)
You know, I can't say for sure, but I think it was similar in the 90's as well. Towns like Eugene and Oakland and Seattle were really the centers of the radical environmental movement and if you lived in New York, you probably moved west, like Daniel did, to become part of that scene. But I don't know. And it's going to be very interesting when the weather changes and the Republican and Democratic conventions start up. I think that in the last couple of months of last year all we saw was just a very small preview of what next year is going to be like. I think there are a lot of folks who think, "Oh, the Occupy movement disappeared." But I know enough folks that are part of it that have been working all winter to prepare for the coming year and it definitely didn't disappear. It will be interesting to see whether there develops a more radical section of that group that feels that traditional nonviolent tactics are not being listened to and decides to do more of the window breaking and whatever else.
Daniel moves back to New York City in part because of the fissures in the environmentalist circles. The term "environmentalist" can even get tricky. Are you an environmentalist if you compost, are you just if you regularly recycle? Do you have to attend demonstrations, do you have to sign petitions, do you have to chain yourself to a tree? Or can you just buy paper towels that are "green?" Even the president of the logging company says he's an environmentalist in the film. In a way, it's sort of similar to the "terrorism" argument.
And it kind of goes both ways because you know in the 70's and 80's, if you were an environmentalist in lots of circles you were considered a kook. You were a radical for being an environmentalist. And back then, I think a lot of environmentalists felt frustrated that taking care of the planet wasn't considered more mainstream. Well now, it has become pretty mainstream and even the head of the timber company considers himself to be an environmentalist. A lot of folks complain that the word's been diluted and co-opted by industry. So it's tough—the language games are tough.
Lets talk about the new rules that the Academy has created for documentaries to be nominated for an Oscar. The movies have to be screened and reviewed in New York or Los Angeles. If A Tree Falls was on the shortlist—so you guys qualified?
It did qualify, yes. We had a theatrical release of the film, and Oscilloscope, a theatrical distribution company, was our distributor. So we did a theatrical release over the summer and it got a review in the New York Times and the LA times, as well as lots of other newspapers, so we qualified in the way that the Academy generally wants people to qualify. But, you know, there are certainly other films, and our film is on the short list this year which means it's one of 15 films that has been selected from the hundred and however many films that qualified to be considered for a nomination.
On the 24th, I think, of January, they'll pick the five nominees from that short list. But there were other films that were really good films that didn’t qualify in the same way and probably wouldn’t have qualified if the rules were what they are now. So, I don't know, I still am not a hundred percent clear, to be perfectly honest with you, about how the rules are gonna be rolled out, how the short list is selected, and how the nominees are selected from the short list in the new system.
Do you think the requirements are generally fair? Why did they make the change?
It's hard to say. I think the reason that they changed the rules was to deal with the fact that a number of films this year that were widely considered to be frontrunners for Oscars, including The Interrupters by Steve James, one of the folks who made Hoop Dreams, didnt make the short list. And it seems like for a number of years in a row there have been very high profile films that haven't made the short list and, and so the rules committee was trying to find a way around that by first making sure that the list wasn't crowded out by films that were not, you know, serious theatrical films, and second by changing the way that the short list was created.
In the past the short list has been created by small screening committees, who rate the films according to a numerical system and that is what generates the short list. My understanding—and I’m not hundred percent sure this is right—is that in the future the entire documentary branch of the Academy will be voting on the short list, so you'll get the more popular films on the short list. The downside, of course, to that is that unusual films that don't really have the same buzz probably wont be seen by very many people in the documentary branch and therefore won’t be voted for by members of the documentary branch. So there are always tradeoffs in trying to come up with the best system.
Do you think this sort of fomentation of dissent over the past six or seven months helped your film to, for lack of a better phrase, ride the zeitgeist to the short list?
It's hard to say, but it definitely makes the film more relevant. I mean, like I said, when it came out this summer, a lot of people saw it as a historical film and when the Occupy movement emerged, it became a film that touched on some of the most important issues that people were arguing about at the time. And we've seen screenings and DVD sales and things like that from universities that have young people that are arguing about what kind of tactics they should use, what lessons can we learn from the movements of the past. Some of the Occupy folks have even scheduled screenings. On the night that the Oakland group was evicted, there was supposed to be a screening of If a Tree Falls at their site. So it has definitely become part of the conversation and I'm sure that that you know played a part in people's appreciation of it.
What are you working on now?
Well, I've got a few different things that I'm working on at the same time but the main thing right now is a film about Lennox Lewis, the former heavyweight boxing champion. He retired a few years ago and is now in an interesting position of having worked his whole life to achieve something, achieved it, and now is a 46 year old—he's got a long life ahead of him and has to figure out what's next.
They can't all sell low-fat, countertop grills.
Yeah, that's right. He's gotta come up with some cooking utensil.
What do you think your chances are of getting the nomination?
To be perfectly honest, I think we're longshots because there are a lot of strong films this year.