If A Tree Falls


If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Edited by Matthew Hamichek

Cinematography by Sam Cullman

Music by James Baxter & The National

Written & Produced by Marshall Curry

Directed by Marshall Curry & Sam Cullman

June, 2011



Daniel McGowan

Suzanne Savoie

Kirk Engdall

Jenny (Daniel’s wife)

Lisa (Daniel’s sister)

Leslie Pickering


Theatrical: Marshall Curry Productions & ITVS & CPB

Video: Oscilloscope Laboratories



Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Codec: MPEG-2

Runtime: 85 minutes

Chapters: 16

Region: All



English Dolby Digital 2.0

English Dolby Digital 5.1


Subtitles: English



• Audio Commentary with Director Marshall Curry, Co-Director/Cinematographer Sam Cullman and Editor Matthew Hamichek

• 5 Deleted scenes (7:40)

• Extended Interviews (7:05)

• “You cannot control what is wild” (8:20)

• Post screening Q&A in Ashland, Oregon with Marshall Curry & Sam Cullman (9:05)

• Original Theatrical Trailer



Custom DVD case

Release Date: August 30, 2011


Winner of Documentary Editing Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival

Winner of Best Documentary Award at the Nashville Film Festival

Winner of the Environmental Visions Award at the Dallas Film Festival


Oscilloscope Synopsis:

In December 2005, Daniel McGowan was arrested by Federal agents in a nationwide sweep of radical environmentalists involved with the Earth Liberation Front-- a group the FBI has called America’s “number one domestic terrorism threat.”  For years, the ELF—operating in separate anonymous cells without any central leadership—had launched spectacular arsons against dozens of businesses they accused of destroying the environment: timber companies, SUV dealerships, wild horse slaughterhouses, and a $12 million ski lodge at Vail, Colorado.

With the arrest of Daniel and thirteen others, the government had cracked what was probably the largest ELF cell in America and brought down the group responsible for the very first ELF arsons in this country. “If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of this ELF cell, by focusing on the transformation and radicalization of one of its members.


Part coming-of-age tale, part cops-and-robbers thriller, the film interweaves a verite chronicle of Daniel on house arrest as he faces life in prison, with a dramatic recounting of the events that led to his involvement with the group. And along the way it asks hard questions about environmentalism, activism, and the way we define terrorism. Drawing from striking archival footage -- much of it never before seen -- and intimate interviews with ELF members, and with the prosecutor and detective who were chasing them, “If A Tree Falls” explores the tumultuous period from 1995 until early 2001 when environmentalists were clashing with timber companies and law enforcement, and the word “terrorism” had not yet been altered by 9/11.


Director’s Statement:

On a cold December day about five years ago, my wife came home from work and told me that four Federal agents had entered her office and arrested one of her employees— Daniel McGowan—for “eco-terrorism.”

We were shocked. I had met Daniel through my wife, and he did not fit my expectation of what an “eco-terrorist” would be like. He had grown up in Rockaway, Queens, was the son of a N.Y. cop, and had been a business major in college. He doesn't look or talk like a revolutionary-- he's less Che Guevara or Malcolm X than a typical "boy next door"- - someone's little brother or employee or son. And I'm always intrigued when reality cuts against a stereotype.


How had someone like him found himself facing life in prison for terrorism? Was it accurate to use the word “terrorism” to describe property destruction in which no one was hurt? What was this shadowy group, the ELF? How had it formed and why? What could make someone decide that arson was a reasonable response to environmental problems? Sam Cullman (Cinematographer/Co-director) and I decided to find out.

At first we thought it might be a short film, but the more we dug in, the more interesting it became. There’s a saying that the deeper you go, the muddier the water gets, and I think this was true for us. Everywhere we looked, our expectations were challenged. Characters said the opposite of what we expected. People who we thought might be fanatical—on one on side or the other—turned out to be thoughtful. Things we thought would be clear, were actually quite complex. And there were no easy heroes or villains. When I began editing the film with Matt Hamachek, we tried to build those moments of surprise into the film and give the audience the same experience we had – an unsettling ride that shifts your sympathies and leaves you with a more nuanced view of the world.


Right after Daniel’s arrest, when we were considering making a film on the ELF, we couldn’t believe that no one had ever made one before. But once we began working on it, we discovered one reason why. Getting access was an enormous challenge. Many of the subjects were facing life in prison as we were shooting, and the high stakes made people understandably skittish about going on camera. They had also seen the way that media sensationalized their crimes and branded them terrorists, and they didn’t want to risk that happening again. The prosecutor, the detective, and the arson victims were also reluctant to talk with us at first. They didn’t want to get sandbagged by a filmmaker with an agenda who would edit their words out of context.

But we were patient (spending four years shooting the film), persistent, and honest with people, and eventually we won their trust.  I’m not that interested in movies that just set up straw men to knock down. I’d rather let strong arguments and powerful characters bang up against each other, and see what happens. And I like allowing the audience’s sympathy to really shift around during the film—sometimes in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

“If A Tree Falls” is a film that asks questions more than it answers them. And by the end of it, I think the audience is left not with a single, easily directed feeling of outrage – though there is plenty of outrage in the story. But instead they are left with an uneasy sense that things are more complicated than they seem from the surface.


Critical Reaction:


"Its presentation of the issues were incredibly well balanced and thought provoking... The film remained fair and faithful to all the subjects of the film and clearly demonstrated the complexity of    the issues. I believe viewing    the film would prompt law enforcement personnel and those who exercise civil disobedience to think beyond moments of confrontation and that the film will engender a greater awareness and a better understanding between police and protesters.”  - Kirk Engdall, Assistant US Attorney, prosecution in the ELF case

"If A Tree Falls” offers a rare and intimate view, not just into the personal lives of Daniel McGowan and his family as he faces the prospects of a future behind bars, but also into the thoughts, emotions and actions that spearhead the fiery underground struggle to defend the Earth. The film creates a formerly non-existent safe space, where the audience is able to get an honest glimpse into drastically conflicting viewpoints on the issues of environmentalism, terrorism, revolution and repression, and walk away with our own individual opinions, though perhaps better informed. It's a very respectful and fair portrayal of a very polarized and criminally-charged issue, where the subjects' humanness takes center stage."  - Leslie James Pickering, former spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front Press Office.


NY Times:

Do crimes against property in which no one is killed or injured constitute acts of terrorism? That is one of two nagging questions that run through Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman’s thoughtful documentary, “If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.” The other has to do with the efficacy of traditional forms of peaceful protest. . . Evenhandedly weighing both sides of these issues, “If a Tree Falls” is cautiously sympathetic to Mr. McGowan, who says he now regrets some of his actions, as do other front members who were part of a cell that was broken in an extensive F.B.I. investigation known as Operation Backfire.

The film’s sobriety and carefully balanced arguments make it an exemplary piece of reporting, although its emotional heat rarely rises to a boil. The most heartbreaking scenes show 500-year-old redwoods being felled and harvested and aerial views of clear-cut forest that resemble scraggly bald patches on a half-shaved head. Although a lumber executive says that for every tree cut down, six more are planted, it still hurts to see these majestic, centuries-old forest sentinels reduced to plywood. . . In the most inflammatory scene, overzealous police officers in Eugene douse protesters with pepper spray and tear gas as they cling to trees that are about to be cut down to make room for a corporate parking lot. . . The film’s contrite talking heads acknowledge that serious mistakes were made.  - Stephen Holden



Whatever your personal feeling or thinking about fanaticism on either side of the aisle, the filmmakers here take great pains to present a “balanced” view of the subject.  They encourage their principle subject, Daniel McGowan, to talk freely about his background and how he came to embrace not only the views but the tactics of a guerrilla political movement.  Likewise they invite those who have been directly affected by their actions to speak, as well as representatives of the very law enforcement community that investigated the Earth Liberation Foundation.  If nothing else you are likely to take away an appreciation for these players so that, if you so choose, you can better understand and deal with people who are susceptible to persuasion or the rigors of their work.

During the Vietnam War, for a variety of reasons clear to me even then, I was actively involved in the protest movement.  I marched, passed out leaflets, wrote to Congress, talked to colleagues and anyone who was willing to enter into dialogue on the subject.  I met a few celebrities along the way, which had the surprising result of making them seem both larger and smaller in my eyes - larger because they took the trouble to come out in a very public way, and smaller because they looked very much like the rest of is when not framed by the camera.


I would hear of some people who did much more than I - they literally put their bodies on the line in an attempt to stop trucks carrying napalm to the war.  Still others were more direct, and more violent. The experience taught me about power and the lack of it that the ordinary citizen has at his or her disposal to effect their government’s policies.  Perhaps the most important, and least cynical, takeaway for me was that violent political protest isn’t so much naive, since it fails to appreciate what every child in every culture is taught: that what you put into your hand, you put into your heart, as it is stupid, since it alienates every potential power basis that might affect change.

And what is true for the Left is true of the Right.  More so, probably. Governments of all persuasions are just as susceptible to a self-perpetuating slippery slope of murderous retaliation that leads to such mindless self-promoting axioms as “The ends justifies the means.”


I therefore concluded that in mosts cases, what motivates such people, many of them anyway, is not political in nature at all, but either some deeper, very likely unconscious, issue about impotence, or that they are easily swept away by passion and charismatic leaders.  I refer you to the Star Trek television episode titled “The Day of the Dove” for a dramatization of how fanaticism and impotence come together to fan the fires of hatred and war. 

I am convinced that this last is a profoundly important motivator in human behavior, and explains fanaticism in all its most insidious and often internecine forms: political, social and religious.

What is valuable about “If A Tree Falls” is that it explores these questions naively, even though I think their bias is clear enough.  They don’t really discuss the issues so much as lay bare the threads that weave their nasty webs: we meet people who might never have imagined themselves as doing anything with the potential of hurting others, and people who follow the letter of the law to its equally irresponsible conclusions.  We also meet the victims of both.  Sometimes they are the same people.  Perhaps they are always the same people. - Leonard Norwitz


Extras: 7

I recommend starting at the bottom of the menu list with the post-screening Q&A at Ashland, Oregon with Marshall Curry & Sam Cullman.  It is filmed as talking heads with the audience questions inserted as title cards - very smart.  Curry and Cullman sets the stage for how Daniel’s case came to their attention, about the kind of documentaries that appeal to them and how they got access to the subjects of their film on all sides of the issue and how they convinced them they would make a fair film.  To the extent of their knowledge, they also respond to questions about what has become of Daniel since his conviction from a judicial point of view.


The audio commentary provided Director Marshall Curry, Co-Director & Photographer Sam Cullman and Editor Matthew Hamichek fleshes out their responses to the Ashland Q&A: they comment extensively on their choices of the many documentary sources as well as a little something extra about the setups for their own interviews. A good deal of this film was made a few years ago, so the bonus feature titled “You cannot control what is wild” is especially useful in that it updates what has become of the people covered in their documentary.  Some of it very touching.  The deleted scenes: Rally (2:35); Wedding Photos (0:45); Money (0:55); Halloween (1:20); Christmas (1:55); and extended interviews: Kirk Engdall (2:20); Leslie James Pickering (2:35); Jonathan Paul (2:00) are briefer than you might expect.

Oscilloscope presents their DVDs in what I think is the best packaging for single disc presentations I’ve come across in a long time, for one their boxes are paper instead of plastic, bringing us just a wee bit closer to the artist.



Image: 3~8

The low score above reflects footage taken from video news and other documentary sources  (all of which are listed in the film’s lengthy end credits which, curiously, omit the narrator) that have not stood the test of whatever transmigration it took to get to DVD.  It’s highly unlikely that Oscilloscope is at fault here considering how good the remainder of the film is.  The latter consists of citiscape fragments and the many interviews done since Daniel’s arrest of a good number of people involved in the history of the case.


Audio & Music: 6/8

The film’s many interviews and the opening voiceover narration by some nameless man are very clear (the accompanying commentary fails to identify him either, but Oscilloscope’s press kit makes it clear that it is the director - no surprise).  Daniel himself is the principle storyteller and his footage and audio comes off quite well.  News footage audio comes off much better than the image.  The James Baxter’s film score and other music performed by The National and other groups have plenty of presence without dominating the sound field.  The music and subtle ambient sounds are given a little boost in an optional 5.1 mix.



Recommendation: 8

“Life + 335 Years” - That certainly puts the question of terrorism and its legal consequences in some perspective.  This sentiment is expressed by Daniel McGowan while on house arrest before his trial and sentencing.  The film is in large part about his reflections on how he came to be a par of the Earth First movement and the extent of his self-observing powers while being involved in their terrorist activities.  When it was all over I wondered if the filmmakers - or the Earth Firsters, for that matter - would have felt as they do about many of the actions on behalf of the “Right to Life” movement.  That the documentary got me to revisit and rethink my positions about such matters is recommendation enough.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

August 9, 2011

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