[Marxism] Documentary on "ecoterrorism" airs tonight on PBS

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 13 08:10:19 MDT 2011

I received the press notice below for a documentary showing on PBS 
tonight that is very much worth seeing. I reviewed it here:


MEDIA CONTACT:   Julia Pacetti, JMP Verdant (917) 584-7846, 
juliapacetti at earthlink.net

POV online pressroom: www.pbs.org/pov/pressroom

Marshall Curry's “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation 
Front” Investigates the Making and Unraveling of a Radical 
Environmental Group, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011, on PBS’ POV Series

Working-class Kid from Queens Becomes an Environmental Arsonist — 
And Faces Life in Prison for His Actions — in Academy 
Award®-nominated Director Marshall Curry’s New Film

“A sterling example of journalistic documentary, clearer, fairer 
and more engrossing than any of the sensationalistic newspaper or 
magazine stories about E.L.F.” — Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com

In December 2005, Daniel McGowan was arrested by four federal 
agents in a nationwide sweep of radical environmentalists involved 
with the Earth Liberation Front, or E.L.F. For years, the E.L.F. 
had launched spectacular acts of arson against dozens of 
businesses it accused of destroying the environment, including 
timber companies, S.U.V. dealerships, wild horse slaughterhouses 
and a $12 million ski lodge in Vail, Colorado. No one had ever 
been hurt in any of the fires, but the FBI considered the group 
the “No. 1 domestic terrorism threat” in the United States, and 
soon after his arrest, McGowan discovered that the arson carried a 
sentence of life in prison.

Director Marshall Curry, whose Academy Award®-nominated Street 
Fight aired on PBS’ POV (Point of View) series in 2005, returns to 
POV in the 2011 season with If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth 
Liberation Front on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011, at 10 p.m.on PBS. 
Part coming-of-age story, part cops-and-robbers drama, the film is 
the remarkable account of McGowan’s involvement with the E.L.F. 
and the consequences that followed.

POV continues on Tuesdays through Sept. 27 and concludes with 
special broadcasts on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 (Where Soldiers Come 
From) and winter/spring 2012 (Curry’s Racing Dreams, about three 
tweens who aspire to race in NASCAR). Now in its 24th season, POV 
is the winner of a Special Emmy Award for Excellence in Television 
Documentary Filmmaking, an IDA Award for Best Continuing Series 
and NALIP’s 2011 Award for Corporate Commitment to Diversity.

Winner of the U.S. Documentary Editing Award at the 2011 Sundance 
Film Festival, If a Tree Falls is a layered narrative that 
carefully weaves together a variety of clashing points of view 
using vérité footage, surprisingly candid interviews and a trove 
of archival material (much of it never before seen). The result is 
a nuanced story that asks its audience to wrestle with questions 
intentionally left unresolved.

The film begins with McGowan in his sister Lisa’s Manhattan 
apartment, where he has been placed on house arrest as he awaits 
trial for two arsons that he committed against Oregon timber 
facilities. With an ankle bracelet monitoring his movement, he 
contemplates his future and reflects on his past.

On the surface, McGowan is an unlikely revolutionary. He went to 
Catholic school in Queens, was the son of a New York police 
officer and was a business major in college. “Growing up, he 
wasn’t the political kid fighting for anything,” his sister says. 
“He was just a regular kid.”

That was part of his appeal to director Marshall Curry and 
cinematographer/co-director Sam Cullman. Curry explains, “I’m 
always intrigued when reality cuts against my expectations or 
stereotypes. How did this guy — who could be anyone’s little 
brother, or employee, or next-door neighbor — wind up facing life 
in prison for ‘eco-terrorism’?”

McGowan recounts how after college, while working at a New York 
public relations film, he discovered the widespread environmental 
destruction going on around him. That moment, he says, “took the 
blinders off,” and he leapt into the environmental movement, 
writing letters, petitioning and then engaging in civil 
disobedience. When those actions seemed ineffective — and 
non-violent protests were met by force from law enforcement — he 
moved on to small acts of property destruction and eventually to 
arson. As a member of the E.L.F., he took part in two multimillion 
dollar fires in Oregon — one against a timber company engaged in 
old-growth logging and the other aimed at a tree farm he believed 
was involved in genetic engineering projects. But after that 
second fire, McGowan began to question the use of arson as a tactic.

As the film explores McGowan’s case, other dramatic characters 
fill out his story and sometimes challenge him: Jake Ferguson, the 
quiet, charismatic “pirate” who started the E.L.F. in the United 
States; Suzanne Savoie, McGowan’s ex-girlfriend, who took part in 
two fires with him; Tim Lewis, an activist/filmmaker who lives in 
a one-room cabin in the mountains of Oregon and captured on film 
the environmental movement that spawned the E.L.F.; Greg Harvey, a 
police detective who describes the day he and his partners broke 
the case as “one of the best days I’ve ever had”; Kirk Engdall, 
the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case but by the end 
of the film holds a nuanced view of the group.

McGowan, like many supporters of the E.L.F., feels conflicted 
about the fires. On one hand, E.L.F. supporters believe that the 
group’s actions were following the traditions of the Boston Tea 
Party: symbolic property destruction designed to draw attention to 
important issues. But they also recognize the danger and 
unanticipated consequences of arson and question whether the fires 
helped the E.L.F. achieve its goals.

McGowan does not feel conflicted about whether the arsons should 
be considered acts of terrorism. Terrorism, he feels, has become a 
term that people use to win public relations battles against their 
political opponents. His sister points out that she witnessed the 
violence and devastation of 9/11 first hand, and it’s hard to see 
the same word used to characterize both Al Qaeda and her brother, 
who took care to make sure that no one was hurt by his actions. 
Still, the victims of his arsons did feel terrorized by the fires, 
and one prosecutor says, “You don’t have to be Bonnie and Clyde to 
be a bank robber, and you don’t have to be Al Qaeda to be a 

The distinction between a criminal and a terrorist is a serious 
one. A federal judge must decide whether to apply “terrorism 
enhancement” to McGowan’s arson charges, which could translate 
into McGowan’s being assigned to one of the restrictive terrorist 
prisons in the United States known as “communication management 

It has been said (most famously by Ralph Waldo Emerson) that 
history is biography writ large. If a Tree Falls explores both an 
intimate personal biography and the larger political history, 
shining light on the way that each affected the other. “The goal 
of the film is to help people understand the emotions and 
experiences that led people to do what they did,” says Curry. “To 
me, films are about stretching us to see the world from a 
different perspective.

“The film has a point of view, but it is a complex point of view 
that acknowledges the ethical and legal and emotional complexity 
of the situation,” Curry continues. “Everyone who knows a lot 
about this topic — from the E.L.F. members to the people who were 
chasing them — acknowledges that the deeper you go, the murkier 
the water gets.”

If a Tree Falls has been praised by the participants on all sides. 
Former E.L.F. spokesman Leslie James Pickering called it “an 
honest glimpse into drastically conflicting viewpoints,” and the 
federal prosecutor who put the E.L.F. members in prison called it 
“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.”

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is a 
co-production of Marshall Curry Productions, LLC and the 
Independent Television Service (ITVS), with funding provided by 
the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in association with Lucky 
Hat Entertainment, American Documentary | POV and the BBC.

About the Filmmaker:

Marshall Curry (Director, Producer)
Marshall Curry’s Emmy and Oscar®-nominated Street Fight, which he 
directed, produced, shot and edited, aired on POV in 2005. The 
film chronicles Cory Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark, N.J. 
against incumbent Sharpe James andwon numerous awards, including 
Audience Awards at the Tribeca Film Festival, AFI/Discovery 
SilverDocs and Hot Docs. It also received the Jury Prize for Best 
International Documentary at Hot Docs and was nominated for a 
Writers Guild of America Award. In 2005, Filmmaker Magazine 
selected Curry as one of “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” and 
he was awarded the International Documentary Association’s 
Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award. In 2007, 
he received an International Trailblazer Award at MIPDOC in 
Cannes. His most recent film, Racing Dreams, about kids competing 
in NASCAR’s “little league,” won numerous awards, including Best 
Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, and will air on 
POV in winter/spring 2012.

Curry has been a guest lecturer at Harvard, Duke, New York 
University and other colleges, and he has served on juries for the 
International Documentary Association, Tribeca Film Festival and 
Hot Docs. Prior to working as a filmmaker, he taught English in 
Guanajuato, Mexico, worked in public radio and taught government 
in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Swarthmore College and was 
a Jane Addams Fellow at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana 
University, where he wrote about the history, philosophy and 
economics of nonprofits. Curry lives with his wife and children in 
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Director:  Marshall Curry
Co-director:  Sam Cullman
Producers:  Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman
Cinematographer:  Sam Cullman
Editors/Writers:  Matthew Hamachek, Marshall Curry
Music:  James Baxter
Running Time:  86:46

(Journalists please note: When listing director credits, please 
list Marshall Curry as director and Sam Cullman as co-director; 
the two are not co-directors.)

POV Series Credits:

Executive Producer:  Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer:  Cynthia López
Vice President, Production and Programming:  Chris White
Series Producer:  Yance Ford

* * * *

Pressroom:  Visit POV’s pressroom, for press releases, 
downloadable art, filmmaker biographies, transcripts and special 

Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and 
Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the 
Arts, The Educational Foundation of America, New York State 
Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, 
FACT and public television viewers. Special support provided by 
the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Funding for POV's 
Diverse Voices Project is provided by the Corporation for Public 
Broadcasting. Project VoiceScape is a partnership of Adobe Youth 
Voices, PBS and POV. POV is presented by a consortium of public 
television stations, including WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in 
association with WNET.ORG.


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