The Limits of Civil Disobedience: An Interview with Director Marshall Curry

Documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry has said that he likes to “present people’s best arguments and let those smack into each other.” His third and most recent project does this exceedingly well – many good arguments, much tough smacking.

If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front thoughtfully explores the blurred fringe of civil disobedience: the film tracks the rise and collapse of a major ‘cell’ within the Earth Liberation Front, once described by the FBI as America’s “number one domestic terrorist group.” Using the mild-mannered Daniel McGowan to anchor the narrative – Daniel was arrested in 2005 for two arsons conducted, somewhat regretfully, in 2001 – the film raises troubling questions about the relationship between protest and law.

Noticeably and keenly absent from the film are answers to some big questions: “I was a religion major in college and really wanted to figure out if there was a God and how we should live our lives,” said Curry in a recent interview with The New York Times. “When I was graduating, one of my friends said to me, ‘You know, I’m still confused, but just at a higher level.’ That’s how I feel about these issues.”

If A Tree Falls does not confuse its viewers, but it challenges them.

The movie has particular relevance to the ongoing Occupy protests, which have scattered outwards and internationally from Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. It was also recently short-listed for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, and is available streaming on Netflix.

Over email, Curry was kind enough to reflect on the process of making the film.

SM: How did the making of “If a Tree Falls” interact with your preexisting opinions on activism: Did your opinions change in any concrete ways? Regularly shift around? Were they not affected at all?

My opinions shifted a number of times, often back and forth, as I learned more about the ideas behind different activist tactics, and then began to learn more about how effective those tactics were.  In the end, I think that most former ELF members had doubts about arson: even if you are careful, it is dangerous; it can put you in prison for life; and, also, it often creates enemies out of potential allies and weakens the movement.  But doing nothing was also not an acceptable alternative.  My feeling is that if you want to change the world you should figure out where the levers of real power are and figure out how to get your hands on them.

In America, the environmental movement is taking on powerful opponents who stand to make a lot of money (and have a lot of money to spend on lobbying and organizing.)  Sometimes it can feel like it’s impossible to win, and the arsons were born out of a sense of frustration and desperation.  But I think that sometimes the movement underestimates its own potential political power. A lot of folks I talk with throw up their hands and say that there’s no reason to vote or organize voters, but by walking away from the political process they really strengthen their opponents. There are examples of movements that don’t have tons of money but organize their constituents into voting blocs and wield great power from that.  Take the NRA [National Rifle Association] or the AARP.  Lobbyists from those groups can dictate terms to legislators, not because they have the most money, but because they represent groups of voters who WILL vote on that issue, and legislators know that and are afraid of that.

I think with the Occupy movements today, we are seeing a lot of activists trying to figure out the best ways to affect change, and it’s been interesting how much interest there is in the film from that movement.  Over the summer, when the film was released, it was a historical story, but suddenly it is very relevant to debates over how to bring about change.  There was a screening planned by the Oakland group for the night that they were evicted, and I understand that other viewings are happening at other Occupy communities as well.

Do you think that documentary specifically, and creative/artistic media generally, provided coverage of ELF that journalistic storytelling cannot, or did not?

I don’t necessarily see a hard line between documentaries and journalism – they both try to shed light on the truth, though some documentaries have more traditional “journalistic standards” and others have less.  But when you compare our film to a 2-minute news story, I think we have the opportunity to go much deeper and be much more nuanced.  We wanted to cover different sides, and we wanted not just to report sound-bites about the arsons (“they are terrorism” “no they aren’t”) but we wanted to understand the emotions, the ideas, the strategy and the repercussions of those arsons.  I think that to really understand a story like this you have to understand (if not agree with) the people on the other side from yourself – what makes them tick, why do they feel and believe the things that they do?  We really wanted the film to stretch audiences, to nudge everyone out of his or her comfort zone, no matter where they stood on the issues.

In the case of the environmental movement, what do you think led to the radicalization manifested in the ELF (as opposed to other social movements that don’t reach this tenor)? Was it simply a small group of people, or something larger?

I think there was a desperation – a sense that irreplaceable 500 year-old trees were being cut down, that species were going extinct, that damage was being done that could never be undone unless they acted right away.  I think that people who oppose abortion probably feel this way too which is why they act so aggressively, even violently.  Many other issues just don’t feel as urgent.  I think that the police reaction to non-violent civil disobedience also infuriated some people and convinced them that the system was rigged against them.  And when people feel like the system is rigged, they are going to step outside of it.  It has been amazing to watch the Occupy protests and see the police using pepperspray on non-violent activists – it could have almost been lifted from our film.  And it makes me worry that there will be a faction that will split off from that group and ramp up their tactics. (We are already seeing some window breaking and black bloc-type action in some places.  I wonder whether that will spread if police continue to use violence in those protests?)

Do you think there are any definitive rules that separate civil disobedience from domestic terrorism, or will the spectrum always be relative? (“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” as the film states.)

I don’t think that classic non-violent civil disobedience –­ sit-ins or marches – are on the spectrum with terrorism.  Those actions are more like letter-writing than terrorism. Anyone who calls them terrorists is just trying to score cynical political points.  As soon as property gets destroyed, though, the T-word will get thrown in, and if the property destruction is dangerous (arson, for instance) then my sense is that in most American’s minds, it gets closer to terrorism.  And when someone gets hurt, it’s even more terroristic.  Of course, the way you view that spectrum depends on how you feel about the cause.  There are a lot of anti-abortion people who wouldn’t describe shooting an abortion doctor as a “terrorist” act.  And it wasn’t long ago that the ELF was considered the number one domestic terrorist threat, even though no one had ever been hurt in an ELF action.

In your Sundance Q&A you mention your desire to set up strong opposing viewpoints, not straw men. Do you think that any members of ELF had nuanced understanding of the problems they were objecting to? More generally, do you think that civil disobedience, by its symbolic nature, must necessarily simplify the argument in which it’s taking part?

I think the ELF had a wide range of people involved – some of whom were not nuanced and others who thought very carefully about what they were doing.  But arson is an inherently un-nuanced tactic.  One of the great things about civil disobedience is that it allows for nuance.  The King/Gandhian philosophy is to use civil disobedience – not to beat up or coerce your opponent – but to draw attention to a moral problem and force people to confront it.  Segregation was possible in America because many people were not paying close attention to what the system was doing to black Americans.  But when civil disobedience focused the public – making them confront images of dogs snapping at children and hoses blasting non-violent protesters – individuals and legislators said, “Wait, this can’t stand.”  By generating a conversation and forcing people to take sides, civil disobedience allows for nuance and change.  In my opinion, arson usually ends the conversation.  It scares people and causes them to think more about the tactic than the environmental or social issue.  And of course, if you make a mistake and burn the wrong business as happens in the film, there’s no way to un-do that.

Finally, what have been some of the most extreme responses to the film?

I’ve gotten some hate mail from both sides – from people who think it’s too “soft on terrorists” and from people who think it’s not radical enough.  But the main response has been overwhelmingly positive from both sides.  In fact, in our press notes, there’s a comment from the prosecutor who worked for years to put the ELF members in prison, saying that he thinks the film is a fair telling of an important story that would help police and activists both to understand each other.  And there’s also a comment from the former spokesman for the ELF (who still thinks arson is a legitimate tactic) saying the same thing.  It’s pretty unusual praise to hear from such opposite perspectives.

Dylan Walsh

Dylan Walsh graduated from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2011 where he studied environmental communication. He is an Editor at The Solutions Journal and a freelance science/environment writer.

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