IF A TREE FALLS AN INTERVIEW MARSHALL CURRY AND SAM CULLMAN
Surely someone who destroys property as part of a political protest is a criminal, but are they a terrorist? If a Tree Falls is the Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman that addresses that question. Members of the radical environmental activist group the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) were charged and convicted by the US government for a series of arsons they committed against businesses they contended were destroying the environment. Despite the fact that the group never targeted, threatened, or killed a single human being in any of its actions, the ELF members are officially considered domestic terrorists and have been sentenced to do jail time in a special federal facility created to house terrorists. The films follows Daniel McGowen, one of the ELF members, as he awaits his trial and sentencing for his participation in the arsons.
I saw this film for the first time at Sundance and then a few months later I saw Better This World which totally reminded me of If a Tree Falls.
Marshall Curry: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of overlap in the two with the theme of how a person becomes radicalized and how that political evolution takes place.
Sam Cullman: And there’s also a huge overlap in the way the federal government dealt with the radicals in both films, and the way they labeled the radicals in both as terrorists.
But one of the most interesting differences in the two films is how the two activists in Better This World refused to testify against each other, whereas, in your film it’s about half the ELF members that testified against each other and the other half made plea deals where they didn’t have to testify against one another. Did any of the former ELF members feel that if they had had better legal representation, then they may not have been swayed so easily to testify against the other members?
MC: Yes, Suzanne who was Daniel’s ex-girlfriend, who was part of the ELF group that testified against Daniel and others, said that for her, it would have made a huge difference if she had a lawyer that was better than the state-appointed lawyer that she had. Daniel did have better lawyers. That said, there were other ELF members that also had state-appointed lawyers that chose not to testify against the other ELF members.
Do you keep in touch with Daniel McGowen?
MC: We do. He’s got very limited access where he is (in a federal prison in Marion, IL). He’s in a CMU (Communications Management Unit) which is a special facility for terrorists, one of only two in the U.S. so he only gets one or two visits per month. But we’ve exchanged letters with him and we stay in touch with his wife and family. He’s very frustrated with his lack of access to the outside world. His mother became gravely ill and passed away since he’s been in there, and he was not allowed out to say goodbye to her. Even some of the most violent criminals in the U.S. have more access to visits and phone calls than Daniel does.
Were you surprised at all by your Oscar nomination?
MC: It’s a very strong year for documentaries. And, as many people have noted, the film is very complex and is not a very polemical film. It’s a film that gives serious consideration to members of the ELF as well as to the prosecutor who put them all away as well as to many of the arson victims. As a result, both the former spokesman for the ELF, who thinks that arson is a legitimate protest tactic, and the prosecutor who put the ELF members in prison have all done press for us and are all very supportive of the film as a way of generating conversation about activism and about policing and the government’s response to activism.
What has been the audience response to the film?
MC: The goal of the film was not to get anybody to flip their positions on this issue, but it was to nudge everybody out of their comfort zone. People say they leave the film feeling unsettled. It doesn’t necessarily rally anyone to the government’s side or the activists side because there’s real complexity with this. We ask questions that we intentionally don’t answer, we leave things unresolved in a way that honestly makes some audiences uncomfortable, but in the long run spurs the conversation about terrorism and activism.
When you interviewed the owner of Superior Lumber, whose business was a target of one of the ELF arsons, he says the logging industry is misunderstood because it’s not their goal to cut down every last tree, and that they do plant 6 trees for every 1 they cut down. Do you believe his statement?
MC: The replanting is true, but as many activists will tell you, they’re replacing a 500-year-old tree with a sapling.
SC: Also, not all of those six saplings will be viable and grow into a tree. The other thing is, the logging companies are planting the same species of tree which is a huge difference than the bio-diverse forest that these activists are trying to save. They’re replacing bio-diverse forest with a crop of trees that they can then come back in and re-harvest.
Does the ELF still exist?
SC: Yes, though they aren’t quite as active as they were in the late ‘90′s, they are still taking credit for arsons.
MC: The thing about the ELF is that it doesn’t have a leader; it’s made up of individual cells. So if you and I wanted to burn an SUV and spray paint ELF on the side, no one would know the difference. When this film came out last summer, it was really viewed as a historical film with people saying “Gosh, remember when people used to do radical activism like this?” Nobody was thinking about Occupy Wall St. yet so it seemed quaint. But Occupy groups have really been looking at our film a lot. Occupy Oakland just had a screening of it. And we’re really happy about that. We feel the film isn’t just about historical issues, it’s about things that people are arguing about right now. What kinds of protest tactics are effective, what tactics are ethical? And on the law enforcement side, how should the government respond to activism? Pepper-spraying people that are involved in non-violent civil disobedience radicalizes people and make people feel like the system is broken. I hope that people on both sides of the argument are looking at the film and saying let’s learn a little bit from our history.
–by Jennifer Wilson for Film Independent
February 15th, 2012 • No Comments