How can I see the film?
Oscilloscope, which released the film theatrically, has produced a DVD with deleted scenes, updates from the people in the film, extended interviews, a commentary with Director, Marshall Curry, Co-director Sam Cullman, and Editor, Matt Hamachek, and a Q/A with Marshall and Sam. You can buy it here. The film-- without all of the extras-- is also available on itunes .
How did you come across the story?
Marshall Curry: The story dropped in our laps. My wife was running a domestic violence organization in Brooklyn and came home from work one day and told me that four federal agents had entered her office that afternoon and arrested one of her employees—Daniel McGowan. I knew him a little bit through her, and we were shocked because he didn’t seem on the surface like the kind of person who could be facing life in prison, charged as an “eco-terrorist.” He had grown up in Queens, had been a business major in college, and his dad was a New York cop. But here he was, in chains. Whenever my preconceived notions are proven to be wrong, I get curious. Sam and I wanted to figure out what had happened—what was the path that had brought him to this place. So we decided to find out.
Will you describe the working process of the filmmakers?
It was really a team effort. I was the director, Sam Cullman was the co-director, and from the beginning, we shot most of the film together. Sam usually shot, and I recorded sound and did the interviews. On occasion we would switch it up, with me shooting and Sam doing sound. We were both working on other projects at the same time (I was making the documentary Racing Dreams, and Sam was working with Eugene Jarecki on The House I Live In, which recently won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance) so there were some cases where one of us couldn’t be there, and we would bring in someone else to help shoot. Bill Gallagher drove the archival search (among other things) and tracked down hundreds of hours of footage—much of it never before seen-- from activists and small news stations. Once the film was shot, Matt Hamachek and I wrote and edited it, chipping away at around 400 hours for a year and a half. There were lots of other people who also worked on it, and each of them played a crucial part--writing music, creating animations, mixing sound, and more. [The complete credits are here.]
Was it hard to get people to open up to you?
Getting access to people was probably the most difficult part of the project. The activists didn’t trust us because they feared we were going to do what the media always did: sensationalize the story and brand them as terrorists. And the law enforcement and arson victims worried that we were going to sand-bag them and edit the film out of context to make them look bad. But I spent a lot of time explaining to people that we were honestly interested in what they had to say. The film wasn’t going to be their point of view but it would include their point of view. We wanted to let people’s best arguments bang up against each other-- that’s when the most interesting sparks fly-- rather than set up straw men to knock down. And ultimately people took a chance and decided to trust us.
What has been the reaction to the film?
The film has been very well received by people on all sides of the story. The former ELF press spokesman, who still believes that arson is a legitimate way of making change, has said that the film is an honest exploration of complex issues, and he thinks that it will generate important conversations about those topics. And the Federal Prosecutor who spent years working to put the ELF in prison has said the exact same thing.
I think that everyone who knows the case well and has spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, recognizes that there is a lot of grey in there. We wanted to nudge people out of their comfort zones—no matter where they stood. And we wanted the film to ask questions and then leave them unanswered—to start conversations and debates, not settle them. There are some audiences who have been uncomfortable with the ambiguity. They want movies to have good guys and bad guys, but I think the world is messier – and more interesting -- than that. Someone said to me, “this is a film for people who like to chew their own food,” and I liked that.
There are some interesting similarities between the film and what we have seen recently with the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US. Did that surprise you?
This summer, when the film was first released in theaters, it was a historical film. The idea of a protest movement in America seemed quaint and distant to most audiences. But in the fall, as the OWS protests erupted and the government began responding to those protests, the issues in the film suddenly became urgent. There were photos in the paper and video clips on the web that could have been lifted directly from the movie. Activist groups and universities began doing screenings and having discussions about what kinds of protest tactics are effective. What are ethical? And what are the legal consequences of different tactics? There have been arguments within the movement-- just as there were in the 90s--about whether property destruction (not arson at this point, but window breaking and things like that) is ever appropriate.
And the law-enforcement community has also been looking at the film, asking really important questions about how police should respond to non-violent civil disobedience. In the 90’s the police used teargas and pepper-spray and nightsticks at protests and it radicalized a lot of activists and convinced them that the democratic system was broken. And some of those people decided to take up arson. I think the film is a cautionary tale for activists to think carefully about tactics, and also a cautionary tale to law enforcement to think about their response to activism, because some responses bring people into the democratic argument and other responses radicalize them.
Has Daniel seen the film?
No. Daniel is in a special “terrorist prison” called a Communication Management Unit (CMU), in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was originally in America’s other CMU, in Marion, Illinois, but was moved in 2011. He has very restricted access to the outside world—is allowed limited phone calls and visits with his family, and all of the visits take place through bulletproof glass. So he hasn’t had a chance to watch it, but he is very curious and is eager to see it when he gets out. His family has seen it, of course, and his wife Jenny gives him updates on what is happening with it out in the world. If you are interested in learning more about how he is doing, you can visit his website.
A number of people have complemented the film’s “balance”—what do you think of that?
I appreciate what people are saying, but I actually don’t think the film is balanced as much as it is complex. I think there's a problem with the “he-said/she-said journalism” that we see too often in the media, when they present issues that are clear cut as if they are controversial, they don't fact-check, and they treat “both sides” of every argument as if they have equal merit. To me, that’s not balance, that’s laziness. The media should be a referee, and a good referee does not call the same number of fouls on both sides. A good referee calls fouls when he sees fouls. If we had discovered as we were making the film that Daniel was a monstrous sociopath, the film would have depicted him that way. And if we had discovered that he was a blameless saint, the film would have depicted him that way. We didn't show the different points of view because we were trying to be balanced, or were afraid of taking a stand. We showed them because we believed there was real complexity there.
Who took that beautiful photograph of the guy on the stump?
A really amazing photographer named T.J. Watt. Here's his website.