Cross posted from Gothamist.com
Marshall Curry has profiled NASCAR hopefuls and Newark Mayor Corey Booker (which earned him an Oscar nomination), and his latest, If A Tree Falls, follows the plight of Daniel McGowan, a former member of the Earth Liberation Front, a group that the F.B.I. once dubbed “America’s #1 domestic terrorist threat.” Curry traces McGowan’s journey from his identity as the mild-mannered son of an NYPD officer to a radical environmental activist in the Pacific Northwest, carrying out arson in the name of the ELF, and back again. McGowan faces a life sentence plus 335 years for committing acts of terrorism, and his guilt is never in doubt. But the movie forces us to think about who a “terrorist” is, and how our society treats citizens who feel that they have no voice.
Hailed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, among others, the film is one of 15 documentaries on the Academy’s short list this year, and the official nominees will be announced tomorrow (UPDATE: the film was nominated). If you have a Netflix account, you can stream the movie now. We spoke with Curry about the parallels between the environmentalist movement and Occupy Wall Street, what a “terrorist” is exactly, and the Academy’s new rules that concern the nomination process for documentaries.
There’s some footage that you included in If a Tree Falls from the Warner Creek blockade in the mid-90’s, where activists were attempting to stop logging in a national forest in Oregon. Their encampment looks exactly like Zuccotti Park—the tents, the signs, everything. And it’s destroyed by the police, just like the Zuccotti encampment was. In what ways are eco-terrorism and “economic inequality terrorism,” as the authorities might call it, similar, and in what ways are they different?
I think there are a lot of thematic similarities between what happened in the 90s, in the environmental movement, and what we see now with the Occupy movement. There there are things that I was seeing on television as the Occupy movement was being covered that seem to be almost lifted from the movie. Whether it’s scenes like the one you describe where folks were being evicted from an encampment where they were trying to keep logging trucks from getting into the forest, or whether it was the use of pepper spray by police to go after non-violent protestors.
We saw it in Zuccotti and it’s similar to the WTO protests and a number of other places in the 90s in the film. And what’s been interesting is when the film came out in the theaters this summer, it was a couple of months before the Occupy movement had started, and a lot of people kind of saw protest movements in the United States as a quaint historical event. There was no discussion of a current protest movement about to happen. And as soon as it happened it really seemed to follow the playbook, and I feel like the film could be a cautionary tale both for activists to consider the types of tactics that they’re engaging in, and also for law enforcement to think about how they’re reacting to activists because I think there are some responses to activism that radicalize people and other responses that bring people into the democratic argument.