Sometimes, you have to track stories down like a bloodhound. Other times they just walk right up and kick down the door to your wife’s workplace – which is exactly what happened to Marshall Curry. His documentary, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, won an award at Sundance for its portrayal of a radical environmental movement as one of its members awaits trial. Curry talks to Sydney Film Festival programmer Jenny Neighbour.
What inspired you to make ‘If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front’?
MC: My wife runs a domestic violence organization in Brooklyn and one day she came home from work and told me that four federal agents had entered her office and arrested one of her employees. He was being accused of “environmental terrorism” and if convicted, he’d go to prison for the rest of his life. It was Daniel McGowan, a guy who I’d known a little bit through her, and he didn’t exactly fit the image that comes to mind of a domestic terrorist. He grew up in Rockaway Queens, was the son of a NY cop, and was a business major in college. How did he wind up in this position? Sam Cullman (cinematographer/co-director) and I decided to find out.
Was it difficult to get Daniel’s fellow ELF members to take part in the film?
MC: The access to all of the characters was very difficult, and is a big part of why it took five years to tell this story. The radical environmental community didn’t trust us because they figured we were from the media in NY and didn’t understand their struggle. They thought we’d just portray them as crazy terrorists, as the media had been doing for the most part. And the arson victims and law enforcement officials also didn’t trust us because they figured we were probably liberal NY filmmakers and would try to sandbag them for the film. But we spent a lot of time talking with people, explaining to them that the film would reflect a lot of points of view and we wanted to include theirs as fairly and clearly as possible. In the end I think we accomplished that and everyone from convicted ELF members to the prosecutor and detective have told us that they think it’s an accurate and nuanced telling of the story.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, what was the audience response, and was there significance awareness of Daniel’s story beforehand?
MC: People really reacted well at Sundance. I think a lot of people have a vague sense of what the ELF is but they’ve never really dug in to explore the real people inside the group. It’s a complex story and we tell it warts and all, which I think surprises people who expect a movie about the environment to be more polemical and less grey.
To win a double pass to the screening of If a Tree Falls on Thursday, June 9 (12:00 PM at Dendy Opera Quays, Cinema 2) please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and why you’d like to see the film. Don’t forget to put ‘If a Tree Falls’ in the subject line and check back regularly as winners will be notified by email. You can check out more of the Green Screen films showing at the Sydney Film Festival here.