'If a Tree Falls' documents the rise and decline of the Earth Liberation Front

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Roy Milburn

In the age of al-Qaeda, the word “terrorist” promises someone very different than Daniel McGowan, a low-key, friendly New Yorker who studied business in college. Yet he’s currently serving a seven-year prison term at the restrictive Communication Management Unit in Terre Haute, Indiana as a federally convicted perpetrator of domestic terrorism.

McGowan landed there because of his involvement in the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmentalist group that the FBI once deemed the “top domestic terror threat” due to its proclivity for non-deadly arsons against companies it deemed destructive to the natural world. McGowan was nabbed in 2005, after he’d already left the organization.

At the time of his arrest, McGowan was working for the wife of acclaimed documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry (Street Fight, Racing Dreams). Curry’s If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which opened in New York theaters on Wednesday with a nationwide rollout to follow, paints a portrait of both McGowan and the ELF, including interviews with its major figures and the agents that nabbed them.

The film persistently tests the audience’s sympathies through its fair-minded look at the story, with individuals on both sides of the conflict allowed to air their views and audience sympathies persistently tested. It’s far removed from the sort of pro-ELF polemic one might expect.

But whatever happened to groups like ELF? And how can we learn from the legacy of radical environmentalism? Here, Curry shares his thoughts:

Why was it important to avoid taking a one-sided approach to the material?

Every film has a point of view. And I think that’s great. There are polemical films that I love. But this film, this topic, is complex and so the resulting film is complex. Every time that we met someone new and heard their point of view, it stretched us. That’s what I love about documentaries, when they can take something that seems simple and complicate it.

To what extent should one blame failures in our Democratic process--in terms of the voices of non-moneyed individuals not being heard--for the creation of the ELF?

I think the ELF was an expression of frustration. That’s not to excuse those arsons, but it is important I think to understand what was going through the minds of people who were committing those arsons. I think there was a deep frustration that democracy wasn’t working, a frustration that traditional activist tactics weren’t working. The fires were kind of an expression of rage. I feel like this film is a cautionary tale. It’s a cautionary tale for activists to think carefully about their tactics and the effectiveness of different kinds of tactics, the ethics, the legality [and] the legal effects of different kinds of tactics. But it’s also a cautionary tale for the rest of society to think about how we react to activism. There are some reactions that will radicalize people and there are some reactions that will bring people into the democratic process.

Why was it important for you to have such a “normal” protagonist?

I’m attracted or interested when reality contradicts stereotypes. To me, that is interesting, when we think we know how somebody is, or we think we know how a culture is, or we think we know something and in fact we’re wrong. That’s interesting to me. If you had asked me to describe a radical eco-terrorist who was going to be facing life in prison, Daniel McGowan is not who I would have described. … He gives an audience a way into this story. … By having Daniel be who he is, and having his sister and his wife be who they are, and his father, it actually challenges audiences in ways that they would not be challenged.

How hard was it to gain the trust of your interview subjects?

That was our No. 1 challenge, trying to get access. The activists were very reluctant to trust us because they thought that we were New York filmmakers who couldn’t possibly understand the radical environmental scene in Oregon and we were going to just do what most mainstream media did, which is take these hellacious fires and call them eco-terrorists and whip it up into kind of a sensationalized story.

The arson victims and the law enforcement didn’t trust us because they thought we would be New York filmmakers who would come out, and probably we were liberals, and we would take what they said out of context and we would try to make them look bad and make the ELF look good. It really required a lot of conversation to convince people that the movie was not going to be their point of view, but we really were interested in their point of view and it was going to reflect it fairly. … Ultimately, they just decided to trust us.

Have you gotten feedback from the people you interviewed?

Having heard from the prosecutor and the police and captain and the detective on the case, and also ELFers, everybody has said they think this story is accurate. It’s crazy. On our press list we have a blurb from the prosecutor who put all these people in prison and from the former spokesman of the ELF. What I like about it is, they’re saying the same thing. It’s not like a Rorschach test where each of them is seeing something different in the movie. Both of them are saying, “This fairly presents my point of view and it challenges my point of view.”

Why has the ELF dissipated in recent years?

I think a couple things have happened since the ’90s. I think the environmental movement has become more mainstream. I know there are some critics who would say that it has lost its teeth as that’s happened. Everybody’s green until nobody’s green. As far as the ELF goes, I think that radical environmentalism, not even as radical as the ELF, a lot of protesting, has died down compared to how it was in the ’90s. One, the fires look a little like these al-Qaeda attacks. So suddenly, even though nobody was hurt, instead of being like the Boston Tea Party people began to think of them as terrorists. I think that made activists less likely to want to engage in them. I think it made activists realize it’s not going to have the effect they might have dreamed in the ’90s it was going to have.

What effect did the ELF think the fires would have?

To hear some of these ELF people talk, they thought in the ’90s that these fires might trigger a revolution in America. That they would spread and it was going to cause this crisis that would make people pay attention to these issues. Now they see that what really happens most of the time when one of these fires occurs is that it splinters the environmental movement and marginalizes the environmental movement.

What else spurred the group’s fade?

After 9/11, the government decided to spend a lot of money and put a lot of resources into domestic terrorism. They consider the ELF to be domestic terrorists, so it really raises the cost for activists to do this type of thing. Suddenly you don’t think, “If I get caught, maybe I’ll go to jail for two years, that’s worth it.” You think, “Wow, maybe I’m going to go for the rest of my life and maybe the government’s going to spend a billion dollars on having hundreds of agents working on this case,” instead of it just being the arson guy with the local police. When people do these fires there’s a cost-benefit analysis, and I think the benefit began to reduce, the cost began to increase, and that led people to not want to do as many of them.

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