Marshall Curry is the director of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, a film about the “eco-terrorism” movement of the 90s and 00s, which is nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. He has lived in Park Slope for the past eight years (“my friends who grew up near here tell me that 12th Street isn’t really Park Slope—that it’s just the brokers who keep redefining areas—so I don’t know… But we like it a lot”) and was in Carroll Gardens for “six or seven years” before that. This is his second Oscar nomination, the previous one being for Street Fight, about the Cory Booker/Sharpe James Newark mayoral election of 2002; he also directed Racing Dreams, about aspiring young stock-car drivers (PBS’s POV will re-air Racing Dreams tomorrow night). Earlier this month, he answered questions about his work and his Oscars experience.
If a Tree Falls is notable for its portrayal of an activist movement that, like many, has documented itself extensively, for posterity, publicity and legal protection. Do you find that activists are generally eager to share their footage, or protective it? And what are the rewards and frustrations of sifting through such a volume of material?
It wasn’t easy to track down footage from the 90s—back then most people were shooting on Hi-8 or VHS, and a lot of it just got lost. People would tell us, “oh, I left all my tapes on the radiator a couple years ago”—things like that.
But there were a few people, including Tim Lewis, one of the characters in our film, who had a lot of material that they had shot and collected over the years. People were usually very generous with their footage, and we gathered hundreds of hours of tapes in the office. It’s thrilling when you find a great nugget. There’s a shot of our main character smashing a window at the WTO protests in Seattle that we just happened upon. And there’s breathtaking footage of activists being peppersprayed that elicits audible gasps from audiences. It was interesting when the Occupy protests started and we began seeing police pepperspraying them. I got lots of calls and emails from people saying, “It’s just like in your film.” The big question is whether members of the Occupy scene will become radicalized by those police actions in the same way that some environmental activists were in the 90s. The film is really a case study in how people become radicalized and it’s a lesson both for activists and governments.
Your film notably portrays a victim of the expanding definition, post-9/11, of “terrorism” as a federal crime enforced by a more and more empowered federal law-enforcement system. Have you been conscious of any evolution in thinking on the subject under the current vs. previous administrations?
My sense is that the Obama administration has dialed back some of the rhetoric around terrorism even as they have continued to aggressively pursue Al Qaeda and groups like them. In the film there’s an important debate about how we define that word, “terrorism.” People whose business were burned felt terrorized by the attacks and considered the arsons to be terrorism. But supporters of the ELF argue that because no one has ever been hurt in an ELF fire, the arsons were more like the Boston Tea Party than 9/11. To them, they were acts of symbolic property destruction designed to draw attention to environmental problems. It’s a tricky question that my partners Sam Cullman and Matt Hamachek and I argued about a lot during the making of the film. In the end I think our opinion is closest to that of the police captain who spent years trying to catch the ELF. He says, “I think of things as crime and non-crime. Arson is a crime. Is it terrorism? I’m not sure—one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” I think that word might create more heat than light—it gets people energized and worked up, but without clarifying what we are talking about.
What’s your relationship with The National, whose music you’ve used for both If a Tree Falls and Racing Dreams? In general, what do you think of as the function of nondiegetic music in nonfiction film?
The singer, Matt Berninger, and I used to work together at an internet design company before I started making films and before he started the band. Scott Devendorf from the band worked there as well. So we’ve been friends a long time. I’ve been a huge fan of their music since they played their very first gig at one of the company parties. When I was looking for music that I loved, I naturally turned to them.
I think that a documentary should attempt to convey emotion as much as it conveys ideas—a lot of the actions in our film were about anger and fear and frustration and joy, as much as they were about a careful political strategy. So if you want to really understand the actions, you have to understand those emotions, and music helps to do that. There are times however when it’s most powerful to just let a scene play without any background music stepping on things, so using music in documentaries is a delicate balance.
You’ve made documentaries about “eco-terrorism,” young Go-Kart racers, and the Newark mayoral election. What, if anything, links your subjects? What’s next?
Someone said to me that the three films were an “American Trilogy”—everything you need to know about America you can learn by looking at inner-city politics, NASCAR and radical environmentalism. I thought that was pretty funny.
I think if anything links them it is an interest I have in the moment when dreams smack into reality. Cory Booker ran for Newark mayor and discovered that it wasn’t the process he had learned about in his civics class growing up. The kids in Racing Dreams want to become NASCAR drivers but find out that it’s harder than they thought. And Daniel McGowan wanted to make the world a better place but got in over his head when he began burning down buildings. I think it’s important for people to understand that the world isn’t all Hollywood endings—good guys make mistakes. Good guys lose sometimes. So we need to be smart and work hard and keep an eye out for pitfalls as we chase our dreams.
How does it feel to be nominated?
It’s really nice that people are responding to the film. When my first film, Street Fight, was nominated, the attention opened up a much wider audience, and ultimately that’s the best part—more people will see the film. I hope the same thing happens with this one too and it seems already like it is happening.
How has your Oscar experience been so far?
It’s lot of work—doing press and setting up screenings and things like that—but it’s hard to complain. I went to get a tux over the weekend. It turns out blue ruffles aren’t in style any more.
Have you seen the other films in your category?
Yes, and they are a teriffic group. Beautiful, powerful films made by people who I like a lot. I hope we win, but I’d be content to lose to any of them.
How do you fancy your chances?
When Street Fight was nominated, it was the year of March of the Penguins and everyone knew they were going to win. This year it seems like it’s more of an open field—every film is really strong and has a real shot.
Will you write a speech? Care to give us a preview?
Ha! I think that would jinx it, wouldn’t it?