‘If A Tree Falls’ screens at Aspen MountainSummit
August 25, 2011
ASPEN – Marshall Curry studied religion at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania. The courses might not have helped the New Jersey native, now a documentary filmmaker, with camera angles and film-to-video transfers, but it did provide him with a fundamental career tool: an ability to explore worthwhile questions, knowing there are not likely to be any definitive answers.
“I wanted to figure out if God existed, and how we should live our lives,” Curry, a 41-year-old who now lives in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood said Thursday morning on the patio behind the Mountain House Lodge. “When we graduated, a friend said, ‘I’m still confused – but at a higher level.'”
“If A Tree Falls,” which shows on Saturday, Aug. 27 in the Wheeler Opera House’s MountainSummit festival, is a full embrace of that kind of uncertainty. The full-length documentary, Curry’s third, examines the Earth Liberation Front, the group that committed repeat acts of arson in the name of defending the environment. The group was active largely in the 1990s – one of its most momentous episodes was the 1998 burning of buildings on Vail Mountain – and the film looks at the Earth Liberation Front in hindsight. But even with the element of time having passed and actions and consequences having been considered and weighed, Curry offers a perspective that remains unsettled. Were these terrorist acts? Or were these necessary, defensible and regrettably destructive blows in defense of animals and forests?
It is the standard line of many documentary filmmakers – Michael Moore would be an exception – that they would rather leave issues open-ended than bring them to a tight conclusion. This, they say, is one of the fundamental difference between documentaries and Hollywood blockbusters. But with “If A Tree Falls,” Curry is not alone in leaving questions unanswered. The members of the Earth Liberation Front profiled in the film – in particular, a man named Daniel McGowan who eventually pleaded guilty to arson charges – look back on their actions with an impressive amount of soul-searching, and even they are open to asking hard questions about the past.
“That’s what interested me most,” Curry said, “having these people reflect on these incredibly dramatic, passionate times. And everyone felt ambivalent in the end. There was regret, frustration. Daniel looks back and says, ‘I don’t know what to do; I don’t know the answer.’ That’s a challenge too for the audience. Because we don’t answer the questions we ask. It doesn’t try to sew it up at the end; it leaves people with the question: How do you protect the environment without going off the rails?”
That issue isn’t just left open at the end of “If A Tree Falls.” Right from the beginning, we don’t know how to pin down McGowan, who is devoutly committed to his principles (his sister complains that McGowan’s recycling obsession had him taking labels off of canned goods before the cans were opened), but also capable of taking a broader viewpoint. The sense of ambivalence is built into the topic – it’s not always easy to tell when defense of the natural world spills over into an immoral act; the police almost certainly respond over-aggressively at times. And Curry himself saw multiple sides of a gray issue.
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“It was less an artistic contrivance than my honest point of view,” he said of the balanced tone. “If I’d felt like they were Al-Qaeda, or heroes, it would have been different. But anyone who explores this topic – the filmmaking team, of the Earth Liberation Front, or the prosecutors – they always come away with a sense that it’s complicated, much more nuanced, than you think starting out.”
For Curry, the project began on a surprising note. His wife, Elizabeth, ran an organization involved with domestic violence, and came home one day with the news that four federal agents had walked into the office and arrested her co-worker, Daniel McGowan. Elizabeth was shocked, and so was her husband.
“He didn’t seem at all like anybody who’d be facing life in prison for arson,” said Curry said, whose mind started to kick into documentarian mode. “I thought, it would either be the story of someone wrongly accused, or a story of a very unlikely eco-arsonist. And either way, it would turn out to be an interesting movie. It didn’t fit my stereotype of what someone facing life in prison would look like. He doesn’t spout jargon; he doesn’t look like a terrorist. Whenever the reality doesn’t fit my stereotype, that’s interesting to me.”
Curry thought in terms of a short film. But as he probed the story he saw greater possibilities. There was an abundance of police-versus-protester footage, much of it extraordinarily emotional and cinematically dramatic. And the characters involved, like McGowan, tended to take a critical look at their younger selves.
“Almost everyone involved in the Earth Liberation Front arsons regretted them, thought they were much more dangerous than they considered, and the legal ramifications were greater than expected, and they didn’t achieve the goals they were hoping for, tactically,” Curry said. “But they felt it wasn’t terrorism – it was more similar to the Boston Tea Party than 9/11 – symbolic property destruction.”
While “If A Tree Falls” comes to no conclusions, history seems to have come out against the Earth Liberation Front. Arson as a strategy to defend the environment is past its peak. The film traces how not only the prosecution of McGowan and a handful of others, but also internal strife, brought the movement to its end.
“It was charges of people not being radical enough, not being pure enough. Instead of building coalitions, they were interested in ideological purity,” said Curry, whose film earned an editing award during its premiere, at the Sundance Film Festival, and has just concluded its theatrical run. “As a result, the movement became smaller, until it disappeared. That’s a dynamic that happens a lot in movements, that people could learn a lot from.”
Curry, who started his career in interactive film and then moved into web design, finally moved into filmmaking with “Street Fight,” an Oscar-nominated 2002 film about Cory Booker’s first, unsuccessful run for major of Newark, N.J. The film followed Booker (who won the 2006 election for mayor) as he took on Sharpe James, who had been mayor for 16 years.
“It was a really gritty, dirty election. Police got involved with people putting up signs, taking down signs,” Curry, who had his camera broken by cops during the filming, said. “And it’s about race – Sharpe James accusing Booker of not really being black. It generated this debate over what it means to be black.”
Curry’s next film, 2009’s “Racing Dreams,” which won best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival, followed three kids who wanted to become NASCAR drivers. To prepare themselves, they participated in go-cart races in carts that went 70 miles per hour. “But it was more about being 12, figuring out what romance feels like, figuring out family, as much as it was about racing,” he said.
A friend pointed out that, between “Street Fight,” “Racing Dreams” and “If A Tree Falls,” Curry had made a trilogy that covered much American ground: “Inner-city politics, NASCAR and environmental radicalism – that’s all of America right there,” he said.
But Curry found a strong thread running through his movies.
“They’re all about people with dreams, and they band into reality. It’s what happens when idealism hits reality,” he said. “They’re all clear-eyed and realistic, but still preserve hope and respect for making an effort – whatever it is. To change Newark, become a race-car driver, protect the environment.”