Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Curry/Cullman/Hamachek IF A TREE FALLS tackles the ELF (and not one from a Disney fairy tale); Q&A with the filmmaker

Does eco-terrorism ring any bells for you? This hyphenated oddity of a word certainly will, once you've seen the new documentary from Marshall Curry. This combination of ecology and terrorism has always seemed a bit strange to TrustMovies.
After all, ecology is positive and terrorism negative. Aren't they? One of the ironic pleasures/
pains of co-director Curry's (with Sam Cullman) and co-writer Curry's (with Matthew Hamachek) new documentary IF A TREE FALLS: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is that the film consistently jerks you back and forth between positive and negative thoughts and feelings about everything from environmental activism and the meaning of terrorism to the lumber industry and government agencies such as the FBI. You'll emerge from this film with a lot more knowledge than you had going in, but you'll also have to piece it together and sort it all out. What goes on here is not exactly back-and-white.

Even the filmmaker's choice of sub-title is telling: Notice that it is "a story" rather than "the," for there are probably many different tales of ELF, and this is but one of them. Events happen -- fires are set, for instance -- but the who, why and how take on odd shifts and shapes, as the movie unfolds. It begins with the filmmaker (shown at left) telling us how federal agents came one morning, out of the blue, to the office of his wife and arrested a young man who worked for her. Curry had met this young man, Daniel McGowan, on several occasions and he did not strike the Curry as the "criminal type." So the filmmaker began his own record of all this, which proved, I suspect, as much of a learning experience for him as it does for us.

Curry lets us see the goals of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and some of the events that led up to its radicalization (Symantec's destruction of age-old trees to build a parking lot, and the sleazy manner in which it was accomplished). "Things like this," notes one observer, really erode your belief that anything can change." Another asks "What are you supposed to do to help the environment -- when you scream and no one hears you?"

Well, burning down the plants and offices of the firms deemed bad for the environment was one way the ELF handled things. And indeed, as someone else notes, burning down the plant in which wild horses were routinely killed accomplished in one night what years of protests and letter writing had not. That the ELF was extremely careful that no human was either hurt or killed in any of their fires, was a kind of "plus," as well. The movie deals with only the single cell of ELF in which Daniel McGowan was a member. We meet other members of that cell, too, and then some of the law enforcement people who, due to their diligence and perseverance over years, finally cracked open and tracked down this one cell.

If you are paying attention -- and can drop some of your own hard-held prejudices -- you may find that your sympathies move from the law-breakers to the law-enforcers, and back again (more than once, too). To say much about the details Curry and his crew provide may derail some of the surprises that the film unfurls as it moves speedily along. We're there for the "battle in Seattle" (above), among other events, but seeing things now, perhaps, a bit differently that in other films and documentaries on this subject.

We also watch as Daniel (above), arrested and then allowed free on bail, waits and wonders as his trial date approaches. "I always thought I'd stay true to my values and beliefs," someone says, as the film is winding down. But what are those values and beliefs? It's to the great credit of If A Tree Falls, that not only do the characters in the film ask that question, so too, do we viewers.

The film, from Oscilloscope Laboratories, opens this Wednesday, June 22, for a week's run at the IFC Center in New York City. Click here to see further screening dates, cities and theaters.


We spoke with co-writer/co-director/co-producer/co-editor of the film, Marshall Curry (shown again, below), at Oscilloscope's offices way west on Canal Street in Manhattan last week. Super-friendly and energized about the opening of his film, Mr Curry was in fine form. But TrustMovies, in transcribing our interview from his recorder, realized with shame that he himself was far too mouthy during the interview, actually talking more than did his interviewee. (He promises to do better in future.) Below are the highlights from that interview -- with TM shown in bold and Marshall Curry in standard type.

Your documentary, along with Buck and Battle for Brooklyn, are all very different, but all three have a decency about them that won’t go into areas in which the agenda is so strong that it won’t allow for other things – like some measure of objectivity. Does this make sense to you?

It does, yes.

After reading the press material, once I’d seen the film, it seems like your were after this sense of objectivity because you didn’t want people to pre-judge. Consequently, your film really had me flip-flopping back and forth about what I thought of all this, and the people involved. How did you ever come to make a movie about the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), of all things?

Well, you know, the whole thing just sort of dropped in my lap. My wife runs this domestic violence organization out in Brooklyn, and one day she came home and told me that Federal agents had arrived in her office that morning and arrested one of her workers.

Until then had you know anything about ELF?

I’m sure I must have seen a clip or a news cast or something about them on television…

That’s what I thought, too; I must have heard something. But it had not really sunk in.

Same with me. Now, I had met this guy, Daniel, in her office a few times already, and he was just so unlike my expectation of a… terrorist.

He is absolutely unlike one’s expectations. (He's shown above, top row, center.) And that was something that surprised me, too – along with the question of why ELF did not do the proper due diligence about the sites and the companies they were going to set fire to. Even though no one was hurt or killed, they still might have done their homework a lot better. This, in your film, seems to set off people’s decision that maybe they are on the wrong track?

I think that’s right, and I think it was a combination of things that led up to the dissolution of this cell of the group. Like making mistakes about the targets, making mistakes about the fires getting out of control in ways they did not expect. And then I think 9/11 scared a lot of people, too—the last fire happened just before 9/11, and when that happened I think people got scared. They suddenly thought, Oh, wait a minute, the government is really gonna hammer this. It’s not gonna be just property destruction anymore.

So nothing happened with ELF after 9/11?

Well, there were still groups of people who did some new things. That’s the thing about ELF: It is not like --- there is no head of it and no membership rolls. Like, if you and I decided to go burn “ELF” on some wall, well, then that would be considered as an ELF action. There are lots of different cells that don’t know each other. This one, that was brought down, is just one group. In Tennessee there is another, and others in other states….

I didn’t realize that from seeing your film.

It’s there.

I didn't remember that part.  Sorry. But your film has so much in it!

Yeah, it really packs in a lot.

That’s the other thing -- and it's something that the filmmakers of Battle for Brooklyn were also telling me: There is so much you shoot but then you must leave so much of it out! And so much of this is important but finally it just has to go. Is there a sort of 90-minute limit that most documentartians feel and don’t want to go beyond? That’s the way it often seems, anyway.

Partly, this is just driven by audiences. It’s tough. If you are Ken Burns, maybe you do a ten-hour series.

But then you know you’re gonna be on PBS.

And if you are Steve James who made Hoop Dreams – he has a new movie out called The Interrupters -- his movies are two, three hours, but he is in a special category. I think that this is probably the same thing with narrative films. 90 minutes is what you expect. Maybe up to two hours, but that’s usually it.

All three movies I’ve seen this week are under 90 minutes.

Right. Everybody has elements of their story that they wish they could have fit in. When you’re in the editing room, there’s a phrase we use: You’ve got to kill your babies!

Your film really made me think all over again about terrorism and what that word means. Is Daniel a terrorist? It’s hard to think of him that way. Certainly not in the way that the 9/11 people were. Or even in the way the home-grown terrorism that you mention in your film: the Oklahoma City bombing. ELF is just not comparable to that at all. And there is something to be said for the fact that they were always making certain that no one was hurt or killed.

But there is also something to say about those fires. Once I saw the photos of some of those fires (Ed: the results of one of these is shown below), I realize how major they were! These were big fires! First you might think it’s only property destruction or vandalism. And while I agree that this is not the same thing as Al Qaeda. But the fires were major and the property destruction was sometimes horrible.

One question I had was about the lumber company that had its offices destroyed by fire. Their representative makes the statement that for every tree they fell, they plant six others. Is this true?

This is true. But what the environmentalists counter is this: "Well, you planted six saplings, but you felled 500-year-old trees."  Also, what they do is plant six of the same saplings, and so instead of ending with a forest that has all kinds of trees of different ages, instead of a real forest you have something like “crops”. Also, when you clear-cut a hillside, this allows for mudslides and things, because no more trees with roots are there. So sediment rushes down into the river and kills the sprawing beds of fish and so forth.
But on the other hand the trees do grow back some 50 or 60 years later. I went into one  forest where a timber guy told me, "Hey-- my father cut this forest 60 years ago, and here I am cutting it again, and -- look -- it’s a huge forest"  And yes, this is true. It is. And yet the environmentalists point out that this is hardly the end of the issue. At one point we realized that we could have made a whole movie about timber practices. But that is something for another movie!

Yes, that’s like another of those babies you had to kill for this film. What your film did for me was that I found myself agreeing with the ELF people, and then disagreeing, then feeling the government is wrong and then thinking, No, they are right. And -- wow -- seeing the government guy question his own actions at the end was quite moving.

It’s amazing what you learn by the end of the movie!

Yes, your film left me confused, but in a way that I was not at all unhappy to be feeling.

That’s the goal. We want the movie to shed light but not to answer all the questions for people. We want a conversation, but we are not providing any easy answers. We are hoping to spur a more thoughtful. sophisticated conversation about these questions.

All three docs that I've seen recently do this, I think. Even Buck, which seems simple in its way, also has the mystery of human personality at its core.

Yes, I liked that movie a lot.

Like my companion said to me the other day, "There are so many documentaries around these days!" And he doesn’t even follow them like I do. I used not to care so much about docs, but now I feel that they can really cover a subject well. Rather than the way those TV news programs do it, with all those sound bites. One really can understand and appreciate the subject of a good documentary.

With a film, you can get past the surface a little bit.

Yes -- getting past the surface, at least a little. Or maybe a lot. Because you understand the subject better than when you went in. Your movie does this. You understand better not just ELF, but the idea of environmental protection, and terrorism, and what these mean.

And even the police. The rocks and bottle and all that, during Seattle. I’'m not saying that what they did is OK, but you can understand why they did it.

Your movie sure gave me quite a different perspective on the Battle in Seattle occurrence. (We get the high sign from the publicist that our time is up.) Anyway, thank you so much for this film. I would really like to get people to see it!

Yes. That’s the trick.

Note: All photos are from the film itself, except those of Mr. Curry. The first is by Dimitrios Kambouris, courtesy of WireImage, and the second comes courtesy of IndieWire.

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