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Viewer Q&A: Marshall Curry & Sam Cullman

Filmmakers Marshall Curry & Sam Cullman and author Rik Scarce talked to viewers about If a Tree Falls in a live Q&A.

POV: We are excited to have filmmakers Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman joining us for a live chat at 2 PM ET today. Please feel free to enter your questions in the chat window and we will put them in the queue for this afternoon's chat.

POV: We'll be starting in about 15 minutes, but here's the trailer for If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

POV: Okay, I think we're ready to start.

POV: We want to welcome the co-directors of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman...

POV: And Rik Scarce, the author of "Eco_Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement"

Sam Cullman: Thanks for setting this up — and folks for logging in!

POV: First, a little about the film.

Marshall Curry: Hi! Happy to be here.

POV: If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front explores two of America’s most pressing issues — environmentalism and terrorism — by lifting the veil on a radical environmental group the FBI calls America’s “number one domestic terrorism threat.” Daniel McGowan, a former member of the Earth Liberation Front, faces life in prison for two multimillion-dollar arsons against Oregon timber companies. What turned this working-class kid from Queens into an eco-warrior? Marshall Curry (Oscar®-nominated Street Fight, POV 2005) provides a nuanced and provocative account that is part coming-of-age story, part cautionary tale and part cops-and-robbers thriller.

POV: It aired last night at 10 PM on most PBS stations.

Rik Scarce: Thanks for inviting me to join you.

POV: We probably won't get to all your questions, but we'll do our best.

POV: Can you talk a little bit about why decided to make this film?

Marshall Curry: Daniel was working at my wife's office (she was running a domestic violence organization in Brooklyn) when he was arrested.

Marshall Curry: I knew him a little bit through her and was surprised that he would be accused of such radical actions.

Marshall Curry: I was also surprised by the fact that he was facing life in prison for the fires.

Sam Cullman: We were immediately interested and because Marshall had known him from office parties and the like over the years, we had enough access to begin discussing the idea of a film.

Marshall Curry: So Sam and I decided to find out what happened. How had a working class kid from queens found himself in this position?

Comment From Lynn
Hi guys, thanks for a really terrific film. What has been the general response from "mainstream environmentalists" to the radical environmental movement? Are they annoyed? Do you think the radical environmental movement has done more harm than good in terms of pushing the environmental agenda?

Marshall Curry: Mainstream environmentalists don't generally approve of the ELF at all.

Marshall Curry: When we were making the film we tried to license footage from the Wilderness Society (of old growth forests) and they wouldn't even license us footage because they didn't want their name anywhere near the ELF.

Rik Scarce: I agree. The mainstream sees the radicals as toxic. They have always feared them, yet initially the radicals hoped to help the mainstream do more by taking extreme positions, making the mainstream seem reasonable.

Sam Cullman: But I think while were making the film we had mainstream environmentalists in mind — as much the radicals/ ELF types... the questions raised by the movie are relevant to each

Marshall Curry: I think mainstream enviros feel that the ELF breaks up coalitions that they are trying to create and turns the conversation to arson and "terrorism", rather than focusing on the environmental issues.

Comment From Kay
Hi everyone! I'm really curious to know what the state of the ELF is now? Is it still operating? Have they been at all dissuaded from Daniel's label as a "terrorist"?

Marshall Curry: While we were making the film there were a few major ELF arsons-- one in Seattle and another in San Diego.

Marshall Curry: But there are fewer ELF arson today than in the 90s.

Sam Cullman: There is of course no single ELF organization and the cell that we follow in the film happened to be the first one in the US. ELF actions continue still

Rik Scarce: There is a history of law enforcement sting operations targeting radical environmentalists, yet the radicals keep committing destructive, illegal activities...and tempting prison time. So, no, I don't think the arrests of "The Family" has had or will have much of an effect. The activists are incredibly committed. For them, the planet comes first.

Sam Cullman: but yes at a slower rate now... and I think in no small part because of the staggering sentences that we see they can face... arson is treated very seriously by the federal gov!

Comment From Sohni Singh (Facebook)
I had mixed feelings because I don't think arson was the right way to bring about change. It's kind of like the guy who goes around shooting abortion doctors. Sure you may have saved some babies that day about to be aborted, but in the long run there will always be another clinic around the corner waiting to do it themselves.

Comment From Patricia
Do you have an update on the timber companies? Are they still massively clearcutting forests today?

Rik Scarce: Sohni, you put your finger on a basic problem.

Marshall Curry: Patricia: There are still clearcuts in America and in fact some of the footage from the film was shot in the past few years. And some of the old growth logs (on the back of a timber truck) were shot recently. However the cutting of old growth has been significantly reduced since the 90s.

Rik Scarce: The truth is, very few ELF actions yield lasting "results."

Rik Scarce: For instance, the Vail ski resort shown in the film was rebuilt.

Sam Cullman: I think also, in response to Sohni's comment that one of the things that really hurt the ELFs chances at real change is that they by and large acted out of frustration and evolved in frustration, so were unable to harvest a wider appeal. They were isolated an their activism and were very iscolatable by the police and ultimately from each other. Not a great way to build a movement that they so desperately wanted to provoke

Marshall Curry: Patricia 2- That's partly due to the spotted owl. And partly a result of decreased demand for timber. And partly a result of so many old trees having already been cut. But we DID see examples of timber regrowth and in one case we were in a forest where a timberman told us that his father had clearcut the same forest 50 years earlier.

Comment From Ajay Srikanth
Hi Sam, hope you are doing well. I'm a friend of Purva's, and you prob have met my parents, Raj Uncle and Moni Aunty. Anyways, just wanted to say I really enjoyed the documentary and wanted to ask a couple of questions. First, what incentive do prosecutors have to declare a person like Daniel McGowan as a terrorist? Does it help them with their statistics/clearance rate so they can say they are being tough on terrorism? Second, what is the typical sentence for arson and how does it compare to what Daniel McGowan and Suzanne Savoie received? Thanks

Sam Cullman: Hey Ajay — nice to hear from you!

Rik Scarce: Ajay, your question gets at the government's side of the politics of these actions. I don't think there's any question that the "terrorism enhancement" was intended to chill dissent. Of course, the government would insist it's extreme, destructive dissent. But consider the other examples in the film where civil disobedience was met with brutal force.

Sam Cullman: To answer the first part of your question, I think prosecutors have an obligation to pursue the charges they see are most relevant. Of course it gets to be subjective because folks like Daniel could have been charged for arson alone — but the terrorism enhancement was also something they felt compelled to pursue as well. Hard to say what their motivation is but certainly as some have said a terror conviction may help justify the extra funding and resources that have in the last decade plus been devoted to these efforts

Marshall Curry: The sentences that the ELF were facing -- life in prison, without the chance of parole -- were much longer than typical arson sentences. But the ultimate sentence after plea bargaining-- 4 years and 7 years-- falls in the range for arson.

Comment From Merilee
First I want to thank you for making a film that raises questions rather than asserting opinions. It really asks viewers to think critically instead of polarize into schools of thought. What do you think is the middle ground here, between mainstream and radical environmentalists? We all care about the same issues and are grappling with how to make a difference. What methods do you think actually make a real and positive change?

Rik Scarce: The film was wonderful for problematizing the civil disobedience-property destruction tension. Civil disobedience seems to me to be the middle ground between mainstream and extreme environmentalism.

Marshall Curry: Merilee: I think that there are legal ways of getting your hands on the levers of power and making real change. When I look at a group like the NRA (to pick perhaps an unusual model), I see folks who have managed to have huge impact on policies based on political strength.

Sam Cullman: I do think it gets back to the idea of building movements...

Marshall Curry: They aren't the richest organization in America, but the NRA organizes people to vote on their issue-- it's sometimes as simple as that-- and they use that to impose their will on legislators.

Comment From Christi
HI guys - as filmmakers, I'm wondering if you could comment on your goals and intentions for the film. What kind of outcome were you hoping for?

Sam Cullman: The issues in this film are complex and we felt first and foremost we had to reflect that.

Marshall Curry: I think we were hoping to generate conversation rather than answer people's questions. The discussion around environmentalism, activism, terrorism can get pretty simplistic in the mainstream media and we wanted to say, "hold on-- look carefully here-- things are more complex that they might seem on the surface."

Marshall Curry: We wanted to stretch people from all different sides to get out of their comfort zones.

Sam Cullman: At the same time the complexity should not be grounds for complacency — many people leave this film "confused, down and discouraged", and I totally understand a reaction like that because the story and themes that our movie explores are without a doubt tragic and mirror a difficult truth: real change, regardless of its intrinsic worth or desperate urgency, is really hard to effect! But we do have to find our place — where we draw our line. I hope we've made a film that lets audiences develop their own point of views and ideas about how to move ahead with the change our society needs.

Marshall Curry: Right, Sam. Making change is not easy-- we have to be sophisticated about it-- but it's not futile. There are lots of examples around us of individuals making change.

Comment From Mimi
I think this is such an interesting moment in our history in terms of 'activism'. It seems a lot of the time like we live in a post-activist, apathetic world where it's not "trendy" to go out and protest or to be an "activist." Making a social statement means buying a mass-produced shirt at Urban Outfitters that says, "Fight the Power" or "Green is the New Black." How much of that do you think is what the ELF is responding to and how much of that do you think organizations like the ELF are responsible for?

Marshall Curry: I agree that activism sometimes seems to be more about self expression than about achieving real concrete goals.

Marshall Curry: But there are many examples where it does draw attention and generate energy around a topic.

Sam Cullman: Well I hear you Mimi, if we're talking about the US alone — but on the world stage there certainly seems to be an upswell in movements for change.

POV: If some of our readers want to respond to Mimi, please feel free to enter comments in the window below.

Rik Scarce: It's funny--there are other trends at work as well. I remember an Earth First! activist telling me that lots of folks were showing up at protests wearing EF! T-shirts but had never been seen at actions before. So there's a sort of "mainstreaming" of radical actions. It's not all cynical.

Marshall Curry: I was on a panel with Tim DeChristopher talking about his activism recently and it's a story that has really drawn a lot of attention to BLM activities. (If you don't know his story it's worth googling.)

POV: Welcome to our late additions! We're talking with Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, filmmakers of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which was broadcast on POV last night, and Rik Scarce, the author of "Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement."

POV: We're seeing all of your questions and comments and we'll get to as many as we can in the 20 minutes we have left with our guests.

Comment From Heather Kearns (Facebook)
i want to cheer their efforts, but i struggle with how they chose to make a point. there must be a better way. but the better way is futile. so where does that leave us. very good film

Comment From Tim
Following up on Sohni's comment, the how come people who attack abortion clinics are not labeled terrorists? Don't they also hope to coerce civilians and the government into certain actions by performing actions that "threaten human life"?

Marshall Curry: I think your are right that a lot of the way we use terrorism is based on our feelings about the cause. As the police captain in the film says "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter"-- it all depends on what you think of the cause. But I think shooting doctors or blowing up abortion clinics or Oklahoma City offices with the goal of killing people fits the typical definition of terrorism.

Sam Cullman: But then one of the questions we hoped to raise in the film is whether the term terrorism should be used at all. Since so often across history and in this case too it seems to be both legally (and certainly rhetorically) as a very subjectively applied term. Who's purpose does it serve and to what end?

Rik Scarce: It is stunning that a movement that has never taken a life is considered the worst domestic terror threat--a point that was brought out in the film. It says a lot about how important property is in our legal system. Property is important--it's our stuff--but is property destruction "terrorism"?

Comment From Jim
I thought the film was great and I was left really torn (which I like). What is really the LEGAL definition of terrorism? If it is, as that detective says, about fear - and people fearing they'll be the next targets - don't you think that was the ELF did (and is doing) elicits legitimate fear in people?

Rik Scarce: When I wrote Eco-Warriors, the tension was between "violence" and "property destruction." Terrorism wasn't even in the picture. So that label seems very much a product of our times.

Sam Cullman: well the definition of terrorism in this case as applied with the terrorism enhancement is more complicated than simply fear

Sam Cullman: the actions had to fit first within a long list of crimes (arson being one of them) and they had to be found to have intended to "to coerce or intimidate the federal government"

Sam Cullman: But to a certain extent I think you are right that fear was the guiding principle and the arson victims we talked to certainly always returned to the trauma of the events they experienced and the aftermath

Sam Cullman: But then many people have asked if victims of domestic violence had been subjects of terrorism — and what about mugging victims? or theft victims? It starts to get really broad and that becomes a slippery slope.

Comment From Ron
How has the general public responded to your film?

Marshall Curry: The general public has been really supportive of the film. People on all sides who have have spent a lot of time looking deeply at the issues recognize that there is a lot of complexity in it. And they appreciate that we have presented the best arguments form all of the different sides rather than setting up straw men just to knock them over. In our press notes we have a blurb from the former spokesman for the ELF saying that he thinks the film is important and worth watching. And we also have a blurb from the Federal prosecutor on the case who spent years investigating the group and putting them in prison, saying the same thing.

Comment From Alex
Did you all consider visiting the main character in prison for an interview?

POV: Now's the time to get in your last-minute questions or comments. We've got about 10 minutes left with our guests.

Sam Cullman: we tried to film at the CMU where Daniel is now — but we were denied because an "interview would interfere with the safety and security needs of the institution." And we are not alone — I have heard that Al Jazeera USA sent a crew only to be turned back, cameras confiscated.

Comment From Marin
I saw POV's other film about protest/domestic terrorism, Better This World, and Brad Crowder's choice, following his jail time, was to continue protesting but this time only peacefully. Do you think Daniel will have a similar response? Do you think such serious sentences play a part in teaching extreme activists to choose more peaceful methods? I wonder if activists who choose violent or destructive actions would make these shifts in method without the threat of such grave consequences?

Marshall Curry: Daniel and all of the people who were part of the ELF cell in the film actually stopped committing arson years before they were caught, so I don't think it was the sentences that led him to stop.

Rik Scarce: I hope Daniel will choose a non-destructive path, and I know others have done the same--though it may be because they were very much in the government's spotlight. I don't think the lengthy sentences have a big effect on committed activists--there is a history of activists ignoring the plight of those who came before them. It's about the cause, and they're willing to make great sacrifices.

Marshall Curry: I think Daniel's time in the CMU is probably making him more frustrated- he does not think he belongs there. But I am quite sure he won't be involved in illegal protest after he gets out.

Comment From Mark Hall via POV Website
I must say, the fact that McGowan is being held in a "Communication Management Unit" with one phone call and one visit per month is outrageous. These strike me as property crimes. People have done far worse and been treated more humanely.

Rik Scarce: Most people don't realize how harsh life in the county jail is. Imagine all of your freedoms stripped from you--everything. Prisoners' psyches suffer tremendously. The addition of virtually no phone calls or personal visits only makes it worse. So the CMU is as cruel and unusual as it comes, in my view.

Sam Cullman: Very true — can't imagine one day in jail or prison, let alone a CMU... But where the CMUs are concerned, in 2010 the Center for Constitutional Rights brought a lawsuit challenging the CMUs on a number of grounds. And this past March a federal judge allowed two to move forward — that the case could proceed over alleged violations of due process rights and the claims of retaliation against prisoners by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Someone described it as an administrative black hole where prisoners cannot find their way out because they don't have an administrative remedies process in place to review the evidence that got them there or challenge their designation to get out....

Marshall Curry: The CMU is pretty harsh. It's not dangerous like prisons you see on TV, but the lack of access to the outside world is hard. When Daniel was in prison, his mother was dying and they had trouble arranging a call to her. When they finally got it worked out, she was already in a coma, so they held up the phone and he spoke for 15 mins and then cut him off. I'm not sure what the purpose is of that.

POV: I think we'll end it there. Thanks so much for spending time with us today!

Rik Scarce: Thanks for your thoughtful questions--and to Marshall and Sam for a great film!

Marshall Curry: Thank you all very much. We have a facebook page where people can continue the conversations with each other-- come over and discuss there!

Sam Cullman: Thank you so much — and to everyone for your comments and connecting with the film!

POV: If we didn't get a chance to ask your question or post your comment, the conversation continues at POV's companion site for If a Tree Falls at and on POV's Facebook page at

POV: You can also dig into the film with online special features at those same links, including an extended interview with Rik Scarce about the split between mainstream environmental groups and radical factions

POV: Our next filmmaker chat will be on Wednesday with Ramona Diaz, director of The Learning, a documentary about four Filipina women who reluctantly leave their families and schools to teach in Baltimore. Teachers from the film will be on the chat as well.

POV: You can watch The Learning right now on the PBS mobile app, or on PBS stations starting Tuesday night.

POV: Thanks again for your questions and comments. This chat will be archived so you can replay it at anytime.

POV: Bye!

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