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Sam Cullman and Marshall Curry, co-directors of IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT.

Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman

If a Tree Falls and Someone Is There To Hear It

by Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 10, 2012.

You never know where inspiration for a film will come from, but normally it does not appear in the form of an FBI squad swooping into your wife’s office to arrest one of her co-workers. 

However, that was exactly how filmmaker Marshall Curry and his co-director Sam Cullman really came to learn about the Earth Liberation Front.  The co-worker was Daniel McGowan, a thirty-something New York native and son of a policeman who joined in the group to protest corporations that were destroying the environment

Eventually the ELF became infamous when some of the more radical members convinced other to take the law in their own hands and set afire companies that were defiling the Earth.  The fires became a pretty big news story at the time, and yet the group still mostly flew under the radar, up until the point that the law caught up with them. 

“It’s surprising to hear people’s reactions,” co-director Cullman admits.  “Some people had heard about them, but it seems like the majority of people did not.  As the number one domestic terror threat in the United States, you’d think it would have more mass penetration.” 

However, in the eyes of the protestors, what they were doing wasn’t so much a criminal act as it was a form of protest. 

The product of over four years of hard work, the documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front was released to critical acclaim last summer.  The film follows McGowan and other members of the group, as well as members of law enforcement and some victims, as they all negotiate the legal ramifications of the actions. 

Now, months after the film’s theatrical release, the filmmakers were recently happy to learn that their film had been nominated for and Oscar for Best Feature Documentary.  “Yeah, it’s crazy news,” Cullman says good-naturedly. 

I was recently able to sit down and speak with Curry and Cullman about their movie, the Earth Liberation Front and protest in America

IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONTYou say early on in the film that Daniel McGowan was arrested at your wife’s office.  At that time, was she... or were you... familiar with the Earth Liberation Front.  Did either of you know anything about Mr. McGowan’s role in it? 

Marshall Curry: We knew very little about the Earth Liberation Front.  I’m sure we read the newspaper stories when the huge arsons at Vail happened and some things like that, but we had no idea that Daniel was a part of it.

When did you come to think that the ELF was an interesting subject for a film? 

Sam Cullman: I think pretty immediately.  Daniel was a great entry point into the story, but I think the intersection of issues – not just the ELF’s history, but the consequences of their actions and their ultimate arrests – just touch on so much that is at stake in America.  Questions of environmentalism and terrorism and activism itself. 

With some current groups out there like the Occupy movement and even at a different extreme the tea partiers, do you feel like the story of the ELF is a cautionary tale? 

Marshall Curry: Yeah, it’s been very interesting to see the emergence of the Occupy movement.  When the film was first theatrically released last summer, it was kind of a historical film.  I think a lot of people thought, “Oh, isn’t that quaint that there used to be a protest movement in the United States.”  When the Occupy activity started, it was pretty remarkable to see history start to seem like it was repeating itself – both with civil disobedience and some of these actions happening and also with the police response, using pepper spray on people.  So, we do feel like the movie is a cautionary tale for activists to think carefully about their tactics and the ethics and the legal consequences and the effectiveness of different tactics.  Also, it’s a cautionary tale to the government to think about how they react, because I think some reactions – like pepper spraying people who are involved in non-violent civil disobedience – radicalized people.  It pushed them towards doing things like the Earth Liberation Front, while other responses bring people into the democratic argument. 

Obviously many of the occurrences in the film were big news stories long before you got involved – particularly the Battle of Seattle.  How many of these things had you heard about or even followed before deciding to make the film? 

Marshall Curry: We knew about them.  We follow the news pretty well and are relatively politically aware.  So we had some background.  But, definitely the process of making the movie took us into these stories at a much deeper level. 

IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONTI’m not going to lie; I had kind of conflicting feelings about the group.  I do strongly believe in many of their causes and at the same time I couldn’t help but think that they did eventually go over the line with some of their ways of handling things.  As filmmakers, was it hard to stay impartial about everything as you were learning about what happened? 

Marshall Curry: I think it was less a question of impartiality and that sort of thing as much as responding to the story that was presented to us.  Everywhere that we turned along the process of making this film – talking to people involved in the arsons and the detectives and the victims – people just sort of surprised us.  When we first started making this film, the general media environment discussing these issues was really, really polarized.  Cops as pigs and environmentalists as wayward hippies and industry as gluttons – it just seemed that things had gotten into such extremes that nobody was really getting into nuance.  Then when we talked to the actual people involved, there really was a ton of nuance there.  So we felt compelled to reflect that complexity in the film itself. 

Once you started looking back at them in an almost investigative way and knowing some of the people involved and some of their reasons, how did it change your understanding of the events? 

Sam Cullman: Well, I think it just opened up a complexity.  You can caricature people when you don’t know them, but once you spend time with somebody like Daniel McGowan, you start to understand.  Which is not the same thing as saying you agree with or you condone.  But you start to understand some of the things that led him to do these fires.  Similarly, once you spend time with the detective on the case or the arson victims, you start to understand them as real people, who, in the case of Steve Swanson, actually suffered as a result of these fires.  They were not victimless fires.  So, I think that getting to know the human side of this story, as opposed to the purely political side of this story, gave us a much more nuanced and much deeper understanding of the whole thing. 

Daniel McGowan certainly did not seem the type to become involved with something like this.  Were you rather shocked by how varied the people who ended up being a part of the movement?

Sam Cullman: Yeah, absolutely.  One of the things that is true about this film is that we call it “A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.”  It’s “a story” because there were 20 people caught up in this particular group of arsons and people who were in this investigation.  Everyone’s stories and backgrounds were very different.  That said, there are some commonalities and I think Daniel’s story in some ways speaks to some of that.  This general frustration with the process of making change and how slow change can be and how difficult change can be.  Then this point – which for everyone is different – at which they turn and decide to cross the line and take on arson as a means and a tactic to move forward. 

IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONTThe film was made in conjunction with a lot of the court cases, and several people that you were talking to were going in and out of jail during that time.  How did that complicate the making of the movie? 

Marshall Curry: I think it raised the stakes a bit for people.  There was a lot of stress for people during that time.  Getting access was probably the most difficult part of the process.  The activists, some of whom were facing life in prison, were reluctant to talk to somebody who they didn’t know.  They were afraid that we would do what the media always did, which is caricature them as hippie terrorists.  I think that the prosecutor and the arson victims also were a little reluctant to talk to us.  They had cases that were going on and were worried that maybe we would edit what they said out of context.  That we had some environmentalist agenda and we would try to make them look bad.  So we had to spend a lot of time explaining to people that we were really interested in their points of view and that we wanted the movie to show people’s best arguments banging against each other, rather than setting up straw men and knocking them down. 

Were there any people involved who you could not get access to or only get less than you would have liked?  For example, while you did speak with Jake Ferguson, for a long part of the movie he was just a shadowy figure and I was a bit surprised there was not more footage of him speaking out about his role in the events. 

Marshall Curry: Actually, it’s funny that you mentioned him.  He was someone that we spent a lot of time trying to get access to.  I was able to get his lawyer to agree that he should talk to us.  At one point, we had a conversation set up and then he sort of flaked on it.  Ultimately, he did an interview with some folks in a TV station and the result of that was really negative in the activist community, so he decided he wasn’t going to do any more interviews after that.  We actually were not able to get an interview with him.  The footage that you see in the movie are outtakes from another interview that he had done.  Fortunately the interview was the same basic questions that we would have been asking him.  But that was one that we weren’t able to get. 

Not speaking as a filmmaker, but just as a citizen now, in a country where a large percentage of the population refuses to even see that the state of ecology as a problem, do you feel that sometimes extreme measures are necessary? 

Sam Cullman: I think that’s definitely a central question in our film.  To speak as citizens versus filmmakers, I don’t know.  But I do know that I do think that we need to be confronting these issues.  If there is a moral out of this in particular: arson is probably not a very effective way of getting your point across.  With the experience of the ELF, it may have gotten into our consciousness – which I think is something that they wanted – but certainly, it also had a lot of negative repercussions.  Not just for the people who were victims, but also for the movement itself.  You look at movements today, whether they are based around issues like climate change or otherwise, it has to be about coalition building and it has to be about bringing people into a movement.  When things are born out of frustration or born out of a very small group, the chances of affecting change is very difficult.  So, I do think that the lessons of the story are ones that we can draw from. 

IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONTWith the political climate more divided today than it has been perhaps in any time in American history, do you think that it is even possible to change people’s minds on what happened, or will people just go in with preconceived notions and seize on the points that support their views? 

Sam Cullman: Look at Occupy, right?  The conversation has shifted because of what they did and what they brought to the table in just four months in the United States.  There’s many ways of injecting your voice into a public debate.  It is not impossible.  It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible. 

In a lot of ways, the Occupy protestors were an outshoot of earlier hippie protests, not completely, but mostly peaceful.  Is it possible to just have a peaceful protest at this juncture in history and make that kind of a difference? 

Marshall Curry: Yeah, I feel like the Occupy movement is a sterling example of that.  I saw an article recently that was analyzing the number of times that The New York Times used the words “income disparity” in the year before the Occupy movement and since.  It was something like a 10,000% increase.  I’m sure that if you analyzed the number of speeches on Capitol Hill and the number of times that this idea now has become a mainstream point for people to consider – that is a direct result of non-violent civil disobedience. 

One of the great ironies of the group – and of course the movie – was that the people who stayed most faithful to the ideals of the group were punished the most, while other members who may have been more involved in the criminal protests were able to get off easier by informing on their fellow members.  Did it surprise you that some of the most active members of ELF seemed to jettison their beliefs when it became obvious that it was in their self-interest to do so? 

Sam Cullman: Yeah, I think it was, among other tragedies, a certain piece of tragedy in this story, to hear that this group that had had passionate solidarity ultimately betrayed each other, many of them, along the way.  But it’s not surprising that these things happen.  If we look at the federal incarceration numbers, something like 90% of people end up pleaing out.  Only very small fractions end up going to trial, because power is very often in the hands of the prosecution.  I think that maybe their choices were as much of a reflection of that as anything else. 

A great deal of the debate on the ELF which was discussed in the film is whether or not the Front was a terrorist group or if it was just a protest group.  Obviously, as documentarians you can’t really choose sides, but just as concerned citizens do you feel that Daniel McGowan and some of his cohorts got a raw deal or do you think what they did might have come within the definition of “terrorism?” 

Marshall Curry: We see it as a somewhat complicated issue.  The folks whose businesses were burned – they were certainly terrorized.  They got alarm systems for their homes.  They didn’t know if their homes were going to be attacked, if their car was going to burst into flames when they got into it.  So, if your definition of terrorism is “somebody who uses intimidation to force you to do something or not do something,” then there is an argument that these fires would qualify.  Now, the folks who are more supportive or sympathetic of the ELF point out that no one has ever been harmed in any of these arsons.  These things are more like the Boston Tea Party.  They are symbolic property destruction and shouldn’t qualify at all.  I would say in the end, probably Sam and I are closest to the police captain who says in the film that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter and he’d rather just focus on crime and not crime.  If you commit an arson, that is a crime and the government should try to catch you and put you in jail and stop people from committing arson.  Whether it is terrorism or not is maybe not even a helpful question.  Terrorism might be one of those words that creates more heat than light.  It excites people and generates a lot of emotion, but without clarifying what it is that we are talking about. 

Sam Cullman: I think that it is sort of instructive for sure to know that the federal government has differing definitions of what terrorism is, even within itself in the United States.  You look at a body like the UN that has been struggling to define this for decades, with no results.  I think the reason for that is quite clear.  The message is that this is a potentially very subjective term that can be wielded to differentiate positions of who is in power and who is at the other end of power.  I think there is a danger in that. 

How did you find out that you were nominated for an Oscar and what was that experience like?  Was it gratifying to see your hard work honored in such a way? 

Marshall Curry: Sure.  I mean it’s a huge thrill.  I’ve got two kids, a five year old and a seven year old.  I was in the kindergarten class helping my son hang up his jacket when my cell phone in my pocket started to ring.  That’s how I got the news. 

Sam Cullman: I was the Sundance Film Festival, showing a different film that I had produced and shot.  Getting the news out there was especially thrilling, absolutely. 

What do you have coming next? 

Marshall Curry: I have a film that I’ve started shooting about Lennox Lewis, the former heavyweight boxing champion.  He retired about six years ago.  Now he’s 47 or so and he’s got 40 more years of living and is trying to figure out what to do.  When you’ve worked your whole life to achieve something and you’ve achieved it, how do you make sense of it?  What do you do for your next chapter? 

Sam Cullman: I’ve been shooting a film for the last few months about an art forger in the United States – someone who has been forging art for 30 years and donating it to museums and institutions and has just recently been caught. 

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2012. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures.  All rights reserved. .
#2 © 2011. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures.  All rights reserved.
#3 © 2011. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures.  All rights reserved.
#4 © 2011. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures.  All rights reserved.
#5 © 2011. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures.  All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 10, 2012.

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Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 10, 2012.