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A Story of the Earth Liberation Front: An Interview With Documentarian Marshall Curry

Filmmaker Marshall Curry. (Photo: Bill Gallagher)

When John Muir formed the Sierra Club in 1892 and fought to pass the National Parks Bill in 1899, it is difficult to believe he imagined future environmentalists would resort to acts defined by the US government as terrorism to protect the land. Or perhaps it isn't so far fetched and he predicted this escalation. Muir biographer,

Donald Worster, says of Muir's environmentalism that his mission was “saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism.”

Materialism, money and commerce are woven as tightly together as a strangler fig, which will climb up its host tree until eventually it kills it, in its search for the light of day. “Soul Saving” falls under a moral realm that often considers itself outside of earthly laws, with the means justifying the end.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. drew parallels between the environmental movement and the civil rights movement. Today's battle to protect the land has become a modern day David and Goliath, with groups such as Earth Liberation Front throwing fire instead of rocks. How effective or justified their actions are is a complicated issue. Documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry tackles this complex subject in his film, “If a Tree Falls.” In 2005, Marshall was selected by Filmmaker Magazine as one of the “Twenty-Five New Faces of Independent Film.” In 2007, he received the International Trailblazer Award at MIPDOC in Cannes. His first documentary, “Street Fight” was nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy. His second documentary, “Racing Dreams” is being made into a feature film by Dreamworks.

When Marshall began filming “If a Tree Falls” he had reached a position in his career where he could pick and choose his subject carefully. How he became involved in making a film about “environmental terrorism” and just what it took to tackle this difficult subject is a story in itself. Marshall shares his story in an interview below.

“If a Tree Falls” is currently playing in select theaters across the country.

Protester. (Photo: T.J.Watt)

Amanda Lin Costa: Can you share how you first became interested in documentary filmmaking?

Marshall Curry: I've always been curious in why different people believe the things they do and do the things they do – in the different ways that people live. When I was in college, I studied comparative religion because I thought that would be a way of figuring out some of those questions, and afterward, I spent a few years zigzagging – living in Mexico and teaching English, working in public radio, teaching high school students government and politics and doing interactive museum exhibits. I got into the internet when that began taking off in the 90s and worked for a number of years on projects like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website.

I loved watching documentaries and had wanted to try making one for years – I'd just put it off as other opportunities arose. But I felt like time was running out for me if I wanted to do it and I took a leave of absence from the internet company where I was working and bought a camera and a copy of Final Cut Pro editing software and made my first feature film, “Street Fight.” It followed a crazy, racially charged mayoral election in Newark, NJ in which a young guy named Cory Booker was taking on the political machine of that city. He has since become a well-known national figure, but at that point he was just an unknown first term city councilman. It went on to be nominated for an Oscar and Emmy and was a real example of DIY filmmaking.

After that I made a film called “Racing Dreams” about two boys and a girl who race go karts that go 70 mph in the little league for NASCAR. You don't have to be a racing fan to watch the film – in fact I didn't know anything about NASCAR before making the film, but it is less about racing than it is about adolescence. Someone called it “Talledega Nights” meets “Catcher in the Rye” which sums it up well. It won the best doc at Tribeca and some other festivals and is available on Netflix.

ALC: The way you found the subject matter of “If a Tree Falls” is probably one of the most interesting and unusual stories I‘ve heard. Can you take us through the beginning stages of when your wife first arrived home and the day you knew you wanted to make a documentary about Daniel and ELF (Earth Liberation Front)?

MC: In December 2005, my wife, who was running a domestic violence organization in Brooklyn, came home from work and told me that four federal agents had entered her office and arrested one of her employees. It was Daniel McGowan – and he was immediately told that he was facing life in prison for burning two timber facilities in Oregon when he was part of the Earth Liberation Front. I knew him a little bit through her and he didn't seem at all like the kind of person who would have that in his past. He's pretty mild mannered, had grown up in Queens, was the son of a NY cop and a Business major in college.

I wanted to find out how this had happened and so Sam Cullman (cinematographer/co-director) and I decided to dig into his past and figure it out. It was a story that became more and more interesting the deeper we dug.

ALC: It was fascinating to read that you originally believed that Daniel, someone you knew, was probably innocent (and I think a very human assumption) but I know the “documentary filmmaker” in you saw a story there whether he was innocent or not. Can you speak to any changes you may or may not have had emotionally when you began to suspect he was guilty, and was there a separation during this process of Marshall – the man who's wife had an employee/acquaintance arrested and charged with terrorism and Marshall – the filmmaker who began to see a complex and perhaps dishonest subject?

MC: Daniel told us at the beginning that he hadn't done it, but I was skeptical. On one hand I wanted to believe him, but there were clues that made me unsure. For instance he was really outraged about facing life in prison and said that the penalty didn't fit a crime of property destruction in which no one was hurt. That may be true, but I know that if I were innocent and being accused of arson, I would not be focusing on whether the penalty fit the crime. I'd be freaking out saying, “Wait, you have the wrong guy – I didn't DO this!” Also, the activist community – including Daniel – was talking a lot about the “snitches” who had agreed to cooperate with the government's investigation. A “snitch,” it seemed to me, is someone who tells on someone who did something wrong, not someone who pins a crime on an innocent person.

So I didn't really know whether he had done it or not, but I thought that either way, it would make an interesting story. Either it would be a film about a guy who was wrongly accused or a story about someone who had come to believe that very radical environmentalism was the only way to protect the planet – and either of those stories would be interesting.

Of course over the course of shooting the film, the truth came out and I think it was the MORE interesting of the two options.

ALC: Since this is Truthout, I am interested especially in the idea of finding truth in documentary filmmaking. Daniel denies his charges and then pleads out, even accepting the terrorism charges and consequent restrictive prison housing and lifelong label of Terrorist. How do you approach dealing with a primary subject (Daniel) who may or may not be feeding you misinformation?

MC: One point of clarification: Daniel took a plea bargain that admitted to the fires he took part in, but he never accepted the terrorism charges. After the plea bargain, his lawyers and the government argued before a federal judge about the “terrorism enhancement” – his lawyers argued that the fires were not terrorism and the prosecution argued that they were. He lost, but he still does not think that the terrorism enhancement or his assignment to a Communication Management Unit (the formal name for the “terrorism prison” where he is being held) are appropriate.

I think that any time you are making a film you have to realize that the people you are talking with might be giving you misinformation. Sometimes it is factually incorrect and for that, it's important to me to check it out and not let things find their way into the film without being challenged, either by me, or by another character, or by evidence that you might see on screen. In my film “Street Fight” for instance, one of the characters constantly makes inaccurate claims and they are shown to be inaccurate in the film.

Most of this film, however, is about interpretation – are these people terrorists or freedom fighters? Are they good or bad? Is cutting timber good or bad? And I don't feel like the answers to those questions are simple, so we don't try to answer them for the audience. I wanted to elicit the strongest – and most heartfelt – arguments from the characters in the film and let those arguments bang up against the strongest arguments of their opponents. That's when the sparks really fly, I think – not when you knock down a straw man.

It was our goal to dig into the characters and really try to find out why they think the things they think and why they do the things they do – and we got some amazingly candid and revealing interviews – but it's not my job to offer summary judgment on those interpretations.

ALC: You say it's not your job “to offer summary judgment” in regard to the people in your film's motivations and actions, but can you speak a little on how you feel about the core question in your film? Is it justifiable to label environmental protesters committing acts of arson as terrorists? Did you find yourself with one opinion at the beginning of the film and another at the end? Or shifting back in forth at all in the editing process?

MC: I have a point of view on the issues, but it's a complex point of view that really can't be summed up in a sentence or two. The movie is an 85 minute exploration of the questions and it would sort of undercut that exploration to say at the end “but the real answer is ___.”

I'm not being intentionally vague or mushy, it's just that – in my mind – the real answer is complicated.

ALC: I looked up the US Code for Domestic Terrorism and found this on the Cornell University Law School web site: US CODE (5) the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that –
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended –
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

I was pretty shocked how broad that is. Without too many spoilers, there is a brutal scene of protesters being pepper-sprayed by police, as well as a heartfelt and honest confession by a victim of the arson on how he feared for his and his family's life. I have to again say, you have dealt with a weighty subject very even handedly. I think by the above definition, the burning of a US government-owned building was terrorism, but I think the violent interference with the protest sit-ins by the police also fits the bill. Did you unearth any data on whether there are cases of the protesters suing the police for the pepper spray or similar incidents?

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MC: Yes, the protesters in certain cases did sue law enforcement for the things you see in the film. The chief of police in Seattle lost his job for the handling of the WTO [World Trade Organization] protests. The people who you see applying pepper-spray to protester's eyes with q-tips were also sued and [the protesters] won – though their victory was largely symbolic – $1 and a change to the policy of when police are allowed to use pepper-spray.

But I don't think that any law enforcement got in trouble for the event in Eugene where police sprayed the tree-sitters who were protesting the cutting of the trees for the parking garage.

ALC: You, for all intents and purposes, infiltrated a terrorist organization to make this film. Can you share some of the paths and investigations that led you to be able to interview people that wear “masks” in public? Did you find any current ELF members who refused to be interviewed, but led you to other people that helped with the gathering of information – particularly the footage that was used during the film?

MC: Getting access was definitely the trickiest part of making the film. The former ELF members were facing life in prison and the activists who had supported them were very afraid of any fallout. And the other side – the police and the arson victims – were initially skeptical of us because they were worried that we would edit them out of context and sandbag them during the interviews.

We spent a lot of time talking with both sides and explaining that we were honestly interested in their points of view. We really wanted to understand them and intended on portraying them fairly. Once we were in a room with them, I think they began to trust us even more – they could sense our sincerity and curiosity. Al Maysles has talked about this idea that the desire to share an experience is stronger than the desire to suppress it, and I think that for many of these folks, our interview was the first time they had opened up to someone about the things they had done.

When we sat down to interview the detective who had worked for years on this case (and who describes cracking it as “one of the best days of my life”) we thought we'd get 30 minutes with him. But instead, he spoke with us for 4 hours. It was really amazing.

We didn't get any current ELF members to help us – the entire cell that was infiltrated in the film was made up of former members. It would be far to dangerous for someone currently involved in the ELF to risk being caught by talking with a reporter or a filmmaker.

ALC: I am curious, you say, “It would be far to dangerous for someone currently involved in the ELF to risk being caught by talking with a reporter or a filmmaker,” yet, so often in “investigative films and videos” we see the man or woman shaded or blurred giving inside information. Did you not have any current ELF members willing to speak this way or did you decide you didn't want to use this technique? Which, as a side point, brings up issues of privacy and protection of “sources” as a documentary filmmaker. I know that Joe Berlinger lost his court case and had to provide outtake footage from his documentary film “Crude” to the oil company that is the focus of the court case in his film: Did you ever worry about a similar situation when making a film about a domestic terrorist watch list group? Do you think as a documentary filmmaker you have to be concerned now about your “sources” and privacy since the “Crude” ruling?

MC: The cell that we were able to speak with was entirely made up of people who had stopped ELF actions and who had been caught. No one knows who the current ELF members are today except, presumably, themselves and they are very protective of their own identities.

We actually didn't try to track down any current ELF participants, though – it wouldn't have really fit into our story. I decided at the beginning that we didn't want to do a newsy survey of the group, but instead wanted to go deeper into one story, so everyone who we spoke with had a direct connection to Daniel's story – either the people who he did the fires with, or his family, or the prosecutor who prosecuted him or the detective who came to NY and arrested him. We didn't talk with academics or politicians in DC or anyone like that who didn't have a specific direct connection to Daniel.

The Berlinger case does make it more important to protect the identities of subjects, even in outtakes. But that wasn't the reason we didn't try to track down current ELF members in this case.

ALC: And the archival footage? Where was most of the footage from? ELF Members? News? Peaceful protesters? I can imagine it was a mix, but I think the work to unearth the footage must have been exhaustive and I would love if you could share that investigative aspect of documentary filmmaking.

MC: Much of the best footage came from Tim Lewis, the guy who lives in the cabin and gives the historical background to the environmental movement. He had been everywhere with his camera during those years – at the protest in downtown Eugene when the activists were pepper-sprayed, at the WTO protests in Seattle, at the Warner Creek protest where the activists built the wall and blocked the logging road into the forest. He also was the one who had shot the footage of Jake Ferguson (the person responsible for the first ELF arson in America) at home playing guitar. He was also a repository for activist footage that other activists had shot during those years – people had given it to him for safe-keeping and he was able to connect us with those folks as well.

We also licensed some footage from news organizations and got it from various other sources. Some of it came from the prosecutors. Bill Gallagher and our team made lots of cold calls tracking it all down and organizing it all and got some real gems like the photos of the Superior Lumber arson which came from the Fire Chief who was first on the scene.

ELF fire at Superior Lumber (Photo: Roy Milburn)

ALC: Was there anytime you ever felt in danger making a film about an organization on the top of the domestic US terrorist watch list?

MC: I never felt in danger. I had a good relationship with both sides of this case – with former ELF folks and with the prosecution – and I think that they both trusted me to tell the story accurately and fairly (and both sides have been pleased with the result). The ELF has never harmed anyone in all of their actions and the people who I met were mostly very sensitive people who had strong non-violence philosophies. They committed large dangerous arsons, but I never worried that they would come after me.

I have wondered if I might be placed on a watch list of some sort by the government, though. I know that the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who is a friend and who has made documentaries about controversial Middle Eastern terrorists has had trouble at customs when she travels internationally – but nothing like that has happened to me.

ALC: I thought personally one of the strongest statements I have heard from you regarding “If a Tree Falls” was that the film opens a dialogue and asks more questions than provides answers on the topic and label of “Terrorist.” In the film, we even hear the line that one person's hero is another person's terrorist. Can you discuss how you balanced and explored this issue? Is that the thematic issue of the documentary? It is certainly a very complex issue.

MC: Balancing the complex point of view in the edit room was mostly a matter of challenging ourselves (I edited with a great editor Matt Hamachek) to keep digging deeper.

I think this is one of those issues where the deeper you dig, the murkier it gets – and everyone who has spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, from the former ELF members, to the prosecutor and police captain – agree that it's not as simple as it appears on its surface.

ALC: Being such a balanced look at what has been labeled eco-terrorism, how do you find the film has been received by ELF members, environmentalists, law enforcement and the general viewing public?

MC: The film has been received very well by people involved with the story. We have a blurb in our press notes from the former ELF press spokesman, who still believes that arson is a legitimate way of making change, and he says that the film is an honest exploration of a complex issue that will generate important conversation about these issues. And we also have a quote by the prosecutor who spent years putting the ELF in prison, saying the exact same thing. So that's nice.

There are some audiences who are uncomfortable with the ambiguity, though. They want a film to chew their food for them, they want Hollywood endings that tie everything together in the end and answer all of the questions. They are usually people on one extreme of the political spectrum or other and they haven't been happy because the film is not polemical enough on their side. They aren't usually people who aren't interested in understanding points of view that they disagree with – they just want to attack their opponents – and I'm ok with them not liking the film. I think if the extremists were happy, I'd start to worry.

ALC: What is next? Are you working on a new project that you can share with us? Do you have a dream project on which you have long-term goals set?

MC: I have a few different ideas but am not sure exactly what's next. Since Sundance I've been working on this film full time – getting our theatrical release and DVD set up and getting things ready for our PBS and BBC broadcasts next year. I think in August, I'll really start to dig into something new.

To learn more about Marshall Curry, “If a Tree Falls” or any of his other projects please visit his website.

This is the first interview in an ongoing series entitled, “Truth and Documentary Filmmaking” by Amanda Lin Costa.

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