An Interview with Director Marshall Curry
by Ben Goldberg
In 2011, the Academy-Award nominated documentary If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front told the complicated story of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and their legal designation as terrorists. Despite the film’s controversial topic, the film does not preach one side and instead delves into the subjects’ nuanced stories.
When asked about choosing such a difficult topic, director Marshall Curry told REACT to FILM (RtF), “I’m usually looking for something that seems complicated enough that it would hold my attention. Not just saying, ‘Here’s this terrible thing and we’re just going to say that it’s terrible and keep repeating that.’ I want it to be nuanced enough that it will keep me engaged and challenged as a whole 90 minute movie.”
For Curry, keeping the story interesting, though, is not a matter of making the film balanced. “I wasn’t trying to make something that was balanced [in making If A Tree Falls]. I was trying to make something that was complex–something that recognized true complexity. And I think there’s a difference between that and balance. Balance to me is what you see when you watch lazy news anchors that just say, ‘He said this, she said this, now you decide.’” Curry’s films do not hide his point of view or bias; as a filmmaker, he says his bias is inherently present in the decisions he makes about who to interview, how to edit, what music to use, and more.
In his films, Curry focuses on subjects his audience might not have previously known about or fully understood. With a background in public radio, interactive museum exhibits, and education, he strives to challenge both himself and his audience. “To me, when I’m shooting, I really appreciate being forced out of my comfort zone into the world and asking people about their lives. I love to pick some topic I don’t know much about and to try and figure it out and then package it in a way that will engage and inform other people,” he explains.
“The topic I was assigned was the debt and the deficit. And I was like, oh, jeez, the last thing people want to see is a straight earnest documentary about the debt and the deficit, so maybe we can just do something that feels silly but is actually accurate and rooted in information,” explains Curry about We the Economy.
He recently directed an animated short about the federal debt and deficit with We the Economy, a project started by Paul Allen. “Paul Allen, one of the co-founders of Microsoft, decided to hire Morgan Spurlock’s company, Cinelan, to get 20 different filmmakers to make 20 short films about the economy. The idea was that people just don’t understand basic economic concepts, and maybe we can make creative short pieces that can be on the web and help the public to understand it a little more.”
Even in creating an animated short, Curry is dedicated to educating his audience. His films, like any good reporting, inform the viewer and call people out on lies and inaccuracies, challenging the audience to discover the truth. “I don’t like when the media — in an attempt to appear ‘balanced’–pretend that simple things are complex. For instance, with global warming, they treat the 1% of scientists who are deniers the same as the 99% who recognize that it is real. That is a disservice to the audience. On the other hand, I feel like when things are truly complex, then I want to acknowledge that complexity by digging around.” Referencing his obligation as a filmmaker, he says, “The goal of good media is that you want to be like a referee. And a good referee doesn’t call the same number of fouls on both sides. He calls fouls when there are fouls.”
The complexity of If A Tree Falls’ subject matter, too, is reflected in the complexity of the film. Unlike some of other Curry’s films, notably Street Fight, If A Tree Falls does not pick a side and ends up calling the same number of fouls on both sides.
“[In If A Tree Falls], I felt unresolved in my point of view,” Curry explains. “When I first started, I thought it was preposterous that ELF members would be considered terrorists. But, then, I went and I talked to the guy whose building was burned, and he felt terrorized. These were huge fires, you see the photographs, and it’s not a little thing.” Curry recognizes that this issue does not have a simple answer. He continues, “So, it’s not crazy to consider that terrorism. But I would say it’s not terrorism in the way that Al Qaeda is terrorism. I think there’s a very big difference between trying to inflict harm on people, which is what Al Qaeda does, and making efforts to ensure no one is hurt, which is what the ELF did.”
“Of course a movie can’t have every point of view and it can’t have every footnote and it can’t have every detail of everything, but to me, the goal is to make a film that I would want to watch. And I’m curious enough to want to hear the strongest arguments from the other side if there are strong arguments,” says Marshall Curry on making a balanced film.
“There actually are things that are effective ways of making change. I think that it’s not always the most romantic things that are the most effective.”Marshall Curry
RtF exposes youth to a variety of films, including If A Tree Falls, that tackle complex situations. Both the film and the RtF curriculum take a non-partisan and balanced stance, but Curry asks young people to think deeply about activism and change after viewing the film. “I would want young people to think about what are problems in the world that are worth taking a stand on and what are effective ways of taking that stand. To think carefully about the ways that we try to achieve change.” Though the film does not give clear answers, he implores people “not to walk out of the film and feel powerless.” RtF, too, encourages students to take action with its middle & high school curriculum. Curry says, “There actually are things that are effective ways of making change. I think that it’s not always the most romantic things that are the most effective.”
Documentaries can challenge and inspire viewers to think critically about their world. “I don’t necessarily try to make something that everybody will be happy about, but I do think a lot about how it will affect people,” he explains. He asks his audience to be in conversation with his films.
“I know that there are people who make movies that are primarily about self-expression, but ultimately, I make films as a means of communicating with other people.”
Marshall Curry is currently a member of the REACT to FILM Film Advisory Board. He is working on a few scripted fiction projects, in addition to a book about his experiences as a documentary filmmaker. REACT to FILM created a curricular unit around “If A Tree Falls” that is part of REACT to FILM’s Middle & High School Media Impact and Social Empowerment Program.