Marshall Curry’s wife came home from work one day and said four FBI agents showed up at her office and arrested one of her employees, Daniel McGowan. He was wanted in connection with several arsons connected to a radical environmental group that the FBI had called America’s “number one domestic terrorist threat.”
“I knew him a little bit,” Curry said, “and he was not what I expected a domestic terrorist to be.”
So Curry, who is being honored with a Tribute Award at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, decided to make a movie about the group. “If A Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front” won the documentary award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and was Oscar-nominated in the same category. Like all of Curry’s films, the impetus was a sense of curiosity about people and why they do what they do, think what they think.
“Usually something catches my eye – it’s usually a person who is charismatic or compelling in some way, and is going to be in some sort of battle, and at the end we’ll find out if they got what they wanted,” Curry said.
Full Frame’s programming director Sadie Tillery, who decides on the Tribute Award with help from her staff, praises Curry’s films for asking “tough questions without telling us what to think.”
“(They are) very well shot, with solid production values,” she added. “And he doesn’t set out with an answer in mind, he sets out with questions in mind.”
Curry’s inquisitive streak has led to films about politics (Oscar-nominated “Street Fight,” about a mayoral race in Newark, N.J.); NASCAR (“Racing Dreams,” about three kids who want to be race car drivers); and warfare (“Point and Shoot,” about a photographer who joins Libyan rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi). His current project is a documentary about former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis.
“What’s interesting is when someone is complex,” Curry said. “And to be complex there has to be something in that person that speaks to me.”
In the case of “If a Tree Falls,” Curry became intrigued with McGowan (who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and arson and was sentenced to seven years in prison and ordered to pay his share of $1.9 million in restitution) because “he was a Catholic school kid from Queens whose dad was a cop.”
Whenever reality cuts against his expectations, he wants to learn more, he said.
“The film wrestles with a lot of thorny questions – about how to achieve social change, about environmentalism, and about the way we define terrorism – and every time I thought I had settled on something, I met someone new who challenged my assumptions. That’s one of my greatest pleasures – experiencing something that forces me to see the world in a different way.”
Curry is a New Jersey native who studied comparative religion at Swarthmore (Pa.) College, taught English in Mexico and worked at a multimedia design firm in New York. He traces his interest in making documentaries to seeing Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March,” an idiosyncratic movie about the women in the filmmaker’s life, nuclear holocaust and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.
The film “was so unlike the documentaries I grew up with,” Curry recalled. “They were those films with World War II footage, the voice of God narrator. And when I watched ‘Sherman’s March,’ I realized documentaries could be personal, more about story, and the quirks of the human condition, rather than facts and recounting information.”
Curry was also lucky when he started making movies. Through a mutual friend, he met Albert Maysles (“Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens”), regarded as the dean of American documentary filmmakers. Curry spent a few days with Maysles (who died March 5), screening his works and recalled the experience as “extremely influential. “
“His philosophy about filmmaking was extremely empathetic,” Curry said. “He believed that movies didn’t need to glamorize people or take them down, but should explore their lives with a sense of empathy, and that could help us to understand our fellow creatures.”
Adapting those lessons for his own films, Curry has become a high-profile documentarian, but like most of his peers, he still struggles to fund his projects and get paid for them. The Oscar nominations make it “easier to get those meetings where you pitch projects,” but Curry says he gets rejected for more grants than he receives.
“I still find it extremely difficult to raise money for projects, particularly projects that are unusual,” he said.
Curry said this is both the best and worst of times to be a documentary filmmaker. With the collapse of the DVD market, “it’s easier to get them seen,” thanks to Internet streaming services and cable channels, but “it’s tougher to get paid for them.”
“I’m thrilled that people can see my work, but iTunes and Netflix don’t make up in revenue what I used to make from selling my DVDs.”
See the films
Marshall Curry will introduce his films and participate in Q&A’s at the Full Frame Film Festival.
▪ “Street Fight,” at 1:10 p.m. Thursday in Cinema 4, Durham Convention Center, 301 W. Morgan St.
▪ “If a Tree Falls,” 4:50 p.m. Friday and 7:50 p.m. Saturday, in Cinema 2, Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St.
▪ “Racing Dreams,” 1:45 p.m. Saturday, at Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris St.
▪ “Mistaken for Strangers,” 10 p.m. Saturday in Cinema 1, Carolina Theatre.
▪ “Point and Shoot,” 1:40 p.m. Sunday, Cinema 1, Carolina Theatre.
The filmmaker: Marshall Curry, 45.
Residence: A native of Summit, N.J., now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Swarthmore College, comparative religion; Jane Addams Fellow, Indiana University Center on Philanthropy.
Work experience: Taught English in Guanajato, Mexico; worked for New York multimedia firm IconProductions, producing and directing interactive documentaries and websites for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and others.
Films: “Street Fight,” 2006, Oscar-nominated in the Best Documentary category; “Racing Dreams,” 2009; “If A Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front,” 2011, Oscar -nominated for Best Documentary; “Point and Shoot,” 2014.
Current project: A film about retired former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis.
At Full Frame: Curry will introduce his films and participate in Q&A’s. He will be presented with his Tribute Award at a barbecue scheduled for 11:30 a.m. April 12 at the Durham Armory, 220 Foster St. Tickets to the barbecue are $27.