Film Chronicles Rise and Fall of Eco-Terrorist Cell Through The Eyes of a Former Member

BY Saskia de Melker  September 1, 2011 at 8:27 AM EST

Photo by T. J. Watt

On Thursday’s NewsHour, we will feature an excerpt of the film “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front,” which looks at the radical environmental group through the transformation of one of its members, Daniel McGowan. It’s part of our series, in partnership with The Economist
magazine
, showcasing the art of filmmaking.



Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, Marshall Curry got his start by shooting, directing, and editing the documentary, “Street Fight,” which followed Cory Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark, N.J. In 2005, Marshall was selected by Filmmaker Magazine as one of “25 New Faces of Independent Film.”

We asked Curry for some insight into the making of the film:

The making of “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” was a series of
surprises.

The first surprise hit on a cold December afternoon about five years ago, when 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. Whenever reality cuts against my stereotype, and I discover that
the world doesn’t work the way I thought it did, I become curious. So Sam Cullman (cinematographer/co-director) and I started digging around.

How had someone like him taken part in these fires and found himself facing life in
prison for terrorism? What could lead someone to decide that arson was a reasonable
response to environmental problems? How had this shadowy group — the ELF — been
formed, and how had the investigators cracked them?

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.

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.

“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.
But instead they are left with an uneasy
sense that things are more complicated than they seem from the surface.

If A Tree Falls will air as part of the PBS documentary series, POV, on September 13 ,2011. Check local listings for air times.

Find more from The Economist Film Project.