Oscar-nominated documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front follows Daniel McGowan, a former member of the ELF, (a radical environmental group who at one point were America’s “number one domestic terrorism threat”) as he awaits trial and sentencing for two multi-million dollar arson attacks. I spoke with filmmaker and director Marshall Curry over the phone from his office in New York City about his latest film, his second Oscar-nomination, and the questions the film poses about terrorism and activism. This is the second part of an edited and abridged version of our conversation.
The film raises a lot of interesting questions, around activism, around language about terrorism, radicalization. While watching the archival footage of the protestors being attacked by police in your film, the parallels with the Occupy movement and the raids on Zuccotti Park in New York are startling. Your film came out before this, but how do you view these comparisons?
I was really amazed by the similarities. When the film came out over the summer it was before the Occupy movement and reviewers and audiences generally saw it as a historical film – this movie about the old days when there used to be an activist movement in the United States. And even when the Occupy thing first started, it was pretty ignored by most people, certainly by the mainstream media, and it wasn’t until the police used pepper spray in Zuccotti Park that it broke onto the front page of the New York Times and went all over the Internet and broke into the minds of most Americans. And I remember thinking when I saw the footage, “Oh wow, this is interesting, this is history repeating itself.” It was really amazing to me.
I think that there are a lot of similarities between the Occupy movement and the early years of the environmental movement, and the big question is, will there be a small portion of that Occupy movement that becomes radicalized by frustration with the system not listening and radicalized by police use of pepper spray or extreme force against people who are engaged in non-violent, civil disobedience? Because I think when that happens it pushes people out of the system and makes them want to consider other kinds of tactics.
So already we’re seeing those arguments happening within the Occupy movement. I think there’s the majority of the Occupy group who feel like radicalization is counter-productive and it attracts the wrong kind of attention to their cause. But there’s definitely a wing of the movement that feels like it is an important tactic in trying to gain attention to the causes they care about. So I think it’s going to be an argument that shall appear even more in the spring and summer as the Occupy movement comes out of its winter hibernation and starts appearing in the streets and at conventions. It’s been really interesting for us because a lot of folks in the Occupy movement have been showing the film and talking about the film and using the questions that the film asks as a framework for having these discussions again, or having these discussions with some historical perspective.
That’s really interesting, because towards the end of the film, as it gets closer to his sentencing, I felt you really see Daniel questioning “was it really worth it?”, “what did we actually achieve”? So I’m interested if those you’ve spoken to in the Occupy movement are using the film as a tool to discourage the move into radicalization, or whether it’s more being used to open the conversation up?
I think the film has such a nuanced point of view on this topic, and it takes the arguments on both sides seriously enough, that it doesn’t feel to people in the Occupy movement like a polemic argument on one side or the other. And I think, in a way, that’s part of what makes it powerful, and has made it a good tool for getting some of those discussions started. It is just saying, “Hey, listen. This is what happened. You’re not the first group to have these arguments. You’re not the first group to be in this situation. So why don’t you take a look at what happened 15 years ago, and I’m not going to tell you the answer here, I’m not going to sum it up for you, but here’s what happened.” I think that there are some people who point to the film and say exactly what you just said, which is, “Alright, we understand now the emotion that led people to engage in arson, and even the tactical thoughts that underpinned those fires. But let’s also look at what happened in the long run.” Because to me, there are ethical questions, there are practical questions, there are questions of effectiveness and also questions of legal consequences. And all of those need to be weighted together when people are deciding what it is that they want to do; whether it makes sense to break windows or to light fires or not. And I think almost everybody who was involved in the Earth Liberation Front in the end regretted their involvement. But they regretted it with a sense of ambivalence. I think that Daniel McGowan does not think that property destruction is immoral, but I think that he has come to think that it is not effective. I hesitate to speak for him too much but that was my understanding from having conversations with him.
In the film, Daniel’s ex-girlfriend talks about the fact that in social movements activists are so critical of the world that they also tend to be so critical of each other, and therefore are unable to sustain effective movements. This was a criticism of the Occupy movement as well – that it lacked sustained leadership and direction. What are your thoughts on this?
I think that what Suzanne describes is very typical of radical movements, that when you’re a part of a movement like that, you are incredibly critical of the world and the problems of the world, and that’s what encourages you to get involved. But that sometimes…when you start turning that critical eye on everything, including each other, and people become incredibly judgmental and they become more interested in finding heretics than in winning over converts, I think that’s when movements fall apart. I’ve heard people say “more radical than now” was the goal in Eugene, Oregon in the 1990s. It’s that kind of attitude that pushes people out of the movement and ultimately destroys its ability to make any sort of change. And it definitely happened in Eugene, and I think it’s a very typical dynamic, that revolutions often eat themselves. The French revolution, the Chinese revolution, you can just look around the world and you see these groups that come together to try to make a change that they feel is important, but then they start attacking each other.
It seems like through this film, and the press around this film, you’ve become somewhat of a spokesperson for the analysis of social movements. Did you imagine when making this film that you’d be talking to journalists and reviewers about issues of activism and revolution?
I don’t know if I’ve become a spokesperson. I mean, people have definitely asked questions about this movement and how it applies to other movements, particularly the Occupy movement, but I’m not an expert. I spent five years working on this movie, but it’s a very limited education. I don’t have a PhD in this stuff, I don’t have 20 years of experience working with movements of change. But it something that is interesting to me and I do think that there are lessons that can be learned from looking at this particular story.
The ELF had press officers who explained their messages to the media and public, and I’m interested in your opinion on how the ELF movement would have changed today now that we have the Internet and social media and real time two-way communication tools.
I think it would have changed a lot. When I saw the footage – and this is maybe less related to the ELF than it is to activism more broadly – of the protestors getting sprayed at UC Davis or Zuccotti Park, I first saw it on the Internet. And those videos went viral and millions of people saw them and the videos moved them.
There’s footage in our film of activists in the nineties who were doing sit-ins having police apply pepper spray to their eyeballs with Q-tips as they held their eyelids open. It is among the most horrific footage that I’ve ever seen in a documentary and when I found it I couldn’t believe it. This was footage that we sort of stumbled across and when audiences see it there are audible gasps when it appears on screen. And if that had happened today everyone would know that footage because it would have instantly been put up on YouTube, and gone viral, and really, I think, would have much more quickly affected the way that police responded to these kinds of events. All that is to say is that having things you can put up on the Internet and being able to post on websites makes a huge difference in groups organizing themselves and getting their messages across.
I felt incredibly moved by a number of scenes in the film, particularly one where Bill Barton from the Native Forest Council waves his arm around acres of felled forest and runs his hand over the rings of a huge 500 year old logged tree, and the first word that springs to mind is Daniel’s description of the “arrogance” of the destruction of these trees with such history. As a city person, did you feel your opinions change about the environment during the making of the film?
I think my opinions changed, but it’s hard to say exactly how, and they probably changed many times – my opinions about the environment, my opinions about environmentalism, and about this group. Each time we met somebody new, it stretched our point of view. And each time that we talked to somebody they challenged our expectations and our previously held views. And that was sort of how we tried to edit the movie as well – to take the audience on this zig-zagy tour of people who all are remarkably articulate on different sides of the issue. Whether it’s the spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front or Daniel, or the arson victims or the prosecutor, the detective, all of these folks had interesting and important things to say and we tried to portray them that way.
And finally, I feel that one of the biggest questions the film poses is what do we mean by “terrorism”, what makes a “terrorist”. For you personally, as a citizen, filmmaker, and a New Yorker, how do you feel about the term now? And did this change during the making of the film?
I would say that my feelings became more nuanced, for sure. I think terrorism is one of those words that we throw around a lot and maybe we have a sense that we know what it means, but that once we really start asking hard questions of our definitions, we discover that it’s a much trickier term than maybe we realized. There’s a police captain in the film who’s worked for years trying to catch these guys, and he says “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter”, and a lot of how you see those questions depends on how much sympathy you have for their goals. Some people have said that the word terrorist is one of those words that creates more heat than light, and it gets people excited and energized and has a lot of emotion, but it actually doesn’t clarify what it is that we are talking about. That same police captain says, “I like to focus on ‘crime’ and ‘not crime’. So, arson is a crime. If someone commits arson, the government should try and catch them and put them in prison. But is it terrorism or not – ah – I don’t know.” And I sort of feel the same way, that whether we are fighting internationally or whether it’s in the United States, we should look at what’s being done and we should look at how it’s being done and be very explicit about what we are talking about when we throw around words like terrorism. I’m not sure that they help us make smart decisions and smart policies about fighting politically charged violence and things like that.