ECONOMIST FILM PROJECT -- September 1, 2011 at 8:27 AM ET
Film Chronicles Rise and Fall of Eco-Terrorist Cell Through The Eyes of a Former Member
Photo by T. J. Watt
On Thursday's NewsHour, we will feature an excerpt of the film "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front," which looks at the radical environmental group through the transformation of one of its members, Daniel McGowan. It's part of our series, in partnership with The Economist magazine, showcasing the art of filmmaking.
Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, Marshall Curry got his start by shooting, directing, and editing the documentary, "Street Fight," which followed Cory Booker's first run for mayor of Newark, N.J. In 2005, Marshall was selected by Filmmaker Magazine as one of "25 New Faces of Independent Film."
We asked Curry for some insight into the making of the film:
The making of "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" was a series of surprises.
The first surprise hit on a cold December afternoon about five years ago, when my wife came home from work and told me that four Federal agents had entered her office and arrested one of her employees--Daniel McGowan--for "eco-terrorism." We were shocked. I had met Daniel through my wife, and he did not fit my expectation of what an "eco-terrorist" would be like. Whenever reality cuts against my stereotype, and I discover that the world doesn't work the way I thought it did, I become curious. So Sam Cullman (cinematographer/co-director) and I started digging around.
How had someone like him taken part in these fires and found himself facing life in prison for terrorism? What could lead someone to decide that arson was a reasonable response to environmental problems? How had this shadowy group -- the ELF -- been formed, and how had the investigators cracked them?
Everywhere we looked, our expectations were challenged. Characters said the opposite of what we expected. People who we thought might be fanatical -- on one on side or the other -- turned out to be thoughtful. Things we thought would be clear, were actually quite complex. And there were no easy heroes or villains. When I began editing the film with Matt Hamachek, we tried to build those moments of surprise into the film and give the audience the same experience we had -- an unsettling ride that shifts your sympathies and leaves you with a more nuanced view of the world.
When we were considering making a film on the ELF, we couldn't believe that no one had ever made one before. But once we began working on it, we discovered one reason why. Getting access was an enormous challenge. Many of the subjects were facing life in prison as we were shooting, and the high stakes made people understandably skittish about going on camera. They had also seen the way that media sensationalized their crimes and branded them terrorists, and they didn't want to risk that happening again. The prosecutor, the detective, and the arson victims were also reluctant to talk with us at first. They didn't want to get sandbagged by a filmmaker with an agenda who would edit their words out of context.
But we were patient (spending four years shooting the film), persistent, and honest with people, and eventually we won their trust.
"If a Tree Falls" is a film that asks questions more than it answers them. And by the end of it, I think the audience is left not with a single, easily directed feeling of outrage. But instead they are left with an uneasy sense that things are more complicated than they seem from the surface.
If A Tree Falls will air as part of the PBS documentary series, POV, on September 13 ,2011. Check local listings for air times.
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