on facebook on twitter on tumblr

Q&A with Oscar Nominated “If A Tree Falls”

Monday, January 30th, 2012 by

We took some time to ask Director Marshall Curry about his experiences with making the film If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which was recently nominated for Best Feature Documentary in this year’s Oscar Awards. The film unravels the story of the Earth Liberation Front members as individuals, challenging their demonization by way of the label “eco-terrorists” cast upon them during the onset of the movement.

Q: It’s clear the film aims to change people’s perspectives on these so-called “terrorists” but what was your main motivation for making the film?

A: The story was really driven by a question: how did someone like Daniel McGowan — who was a business major in college, whose dad was a NY policeman—wind up facing life in prison for terrorism? It’s a question that’s really relevant given the emerging Occupy movements, and the film has generated a lot of great, energetic debates. It’s the story of a protest movement in the 90’s that shared a lot of similarities with the Occupy groups today, and the film is a cautionary tale for activists that encourages them to think carefully about the ethics and legality and effectiveness of different tactics. And it’s also a cautionary tale to government about what happens when people feel that their voices are not being heard. There are some reactions to activism—like pepper-spraying non-violent protesters—that radicalize people. And other reactions that bring people into the democratic argument.

Q: Was it difficult gaining access to the ELF members with their trials looming?

A: Access was definitely the most difficult part of making the film. The activists were reluctant to talk with us because many of them were facing life in prison, and they feared that we would do what the media usually did—paint them as crazy “eco-terrorists” to sensationalize the story. And the law enforcement folks and arson-victims were also reluctant to talk. They were afraid we had an agenda and would distort what they said or cut the film to make them look bad. We had to spend a lot of time explaining to them that we were honestly interested in their points of view. I think that it’s much more interesting to let people’s best arguments bang against each other and create sparks, than to just set up straw men and knock them down. In the end, I think everyone who participated in the film—from the ELF members to the prosecutor and detective who were chasing them—felt that the movie was a fair and nuaced telling of a morally complex story.

Q: Do you believe using your voice, such as with this film, will ever make change on the scale ELF hoped?

A: This is not really a polemical film that is trying to foment revolution. It’s trying, instead to nudge people – on all sides of the issue—out of their comfort zones. To get them to consider the world from someone else’s perspective. To stretch their view and hopefully to generate questions and further discussion about environmentalism, activism, terrorism, and law enforcement. Sometimes change comes by getting people to take a deep breath and think.

Q: How was it getting to know Daniel leading up to his trial and sentencing?

A: He’s an interesting guy—very different from what my stereotype was of someone facing life in prison for terrorism. Whenever reality cuts against my stereotype, and the world turns out to be different from what I thought, I find that intriguing. Sam Cullman and I worked hard to get to know Daniel during the months before he went to prison. We wanted to understand what led him to do these arsons. What was his political philosophy? And also—just as important– what emotions, what experiences made him who he is.? It’s so easy in today’s political climate to just write off your opponents as crazy, and to caricature them. We wanted to get below the surface.

Q: Did you run into any other complications with making the film, perhaps with people close to the actions of ELF?

A: We ran into thousands of complications—getting access, raising money, editing a complex story into a movie that plays like a dramatic thriller. Making a documentary is always harder than you think it is going to be. It’s a little like having children—if you knew what labor was going to feel like, you’d never do it—but once your kids are born, you forget all of the agony behind the birthing and just enjoy their existence.

Q: What is your next project?

A: I have a few things that I’m working on, but the main one now is about the boxer Lennox Lewis, who retired a few years ago as the undisputed heavyweight champ. Now he’s 46 and has achieved the thing he set out to do and is trying to figure out what’s next.

Comments are closed.

Recent Posts

Blogs We Like

Film Companies/Labels



Unlimited Indie Films - 1 Month FREE Trial
Unlimited Indie Films - 1 Month FREE Trial