If A Tree Falls

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, directed by Marshall Curry, 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.

'One of the best documentaries of the year.' Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

'An extraordinary documentary...[a] fearless exploration of complexity in a world drawn to oversimplified depictions of events and problems, heroes and villains.' Andrew Revkin, The New York Times

'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

'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

'Personalizes ELF's history...While the film does question whether authorities overreached in the charges lodged against ELF members--since the group targeted property and never injured anyone--the filmmakers also afford time to law enforcement officials to argue their case, making this a more nuanced than polemical documentary...Recommended.' Video Librarian

'A cautionary tale...Suitable for high school and for college courses in cultural anthropology, development anthropology, economic anthropology, anthropology of violence, and American studies, as well as general audiences.' Jack David Eller, Community College of Denver, Anthropology Reviews Database

'Fact-filled...Unbiased...Open-ended questions are posed, such as what is terrorism and isn't big business responsible for oil spills and mountaintop removal mining?...Classes in journalism, political science, and current events can utilize this program as well as literature classes reading Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang.' Patricia Ann Owens, Illinois Eastern Community Colleges, School Library Journal

'Teachers of modern world history, ethics, environmental science, sociology, law, and other disciplines might find this documentary to be one that provokes strong emotions, important discussion, and close observation. This video does a fine job of presenting the complicated and potentially polarizing issue for a variety of viewpoints...All the stakeholders involved are depicted with depth and compassion...These are real people in real situations wrestling with real ethical issues.' Mare Sullivan, Bellevue Christian School, Science Books and Films

'Recommended. In addition to the story of McGowan and ELF, the filmmakers also reveal the extent to which the authorities went to get ELF members to name names and spy on each other in the wake of additional concerns after 9/11, which created new definitions of terrorism and new tools to deal with it. If a Tree Falls, thus deals with civil liberty concerns as well as environmental issues. Winner of multiple awards, this film effectively uses interviews, television and documentary clips, and narration to tell the story of one man in a larger political, historical and environmental context.' Linda Kelly Alkana, California State University Long Beach, Educational Media Reviews Online

'A true life outlaw tale, as stirring as it is tragic, the story of the Earth Liberation Front offers a DeLillo-flavored draught of high-proof righteous excitement.' Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice

'A compelling doc about radical environmentalism...informative, compelling.' Justin Lowe, Hollywood Reporter

'It's a wildly successful and engaging documentary.' Jon Reiss, NY Press

'The vibe alternates between an early Clash concert and a dark, dark twist on Ocean's 11.' Abe Streep, Outside Magazine

'The film sweeps us up like a thriller...a fantastic moral ambivalence.' Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

'This is a sterling example of journalistic documentary, clearer, fairer and more engrossing than any of the sensationalistic newspaper or magazine stories about the ELF.' Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com

'An intriguing and important film... As director Marshall Curry said at his Sundance post-screening Q&A: 'The film has a point of view, but a grown-up point of view that acknowledges the complexity of the situation.'' Stewart Nusbaumer, Filmmaker Magazine

'Compelling, adroitly edited portrait of the radical group.' Critics' Pick, New York Magazine

'A gripping doc about eco-terrorism.' Scott Feinberg, Hollywood Reporter

'Power mix of violent confrontation between police and activists, ultimately propels the film into a call for action and change.' Thomas Logoreci, Dox Magazine

'Yields a remarkable clarity about the perils of modern idealism.' S.T. Vanairsdale, Movieline

'A powerful and mesmerizing documentary.' David Seideman, Audubon Magazine

'5-stars: [The] filmmakers raise questions and stir public debate about the definition of terrorism, especially in the post 9/11 security environment...very compelling.' Jennifer Merin, About.com Documentaries

'By turns elegiac, tender, funny and horrifying, it is a portrait of McGowan that doubles as a complex philosophical argument about the benefits and dangers of violent social protest.' Matt Zoller Seitz, Salon.com

'If a Tree Falls is nothing if not troubling, complicated and thought-provoking...[the film] provided a common text from which everybody--radical or moderate, liberal or conservative--was able to work, interpret, converse. This common ground paired with the power of narrative establishes a strong ally for the environmental community and a bridge across divided ideologies and hopes.' Dylan Walsh, Yale Daily News

'Engrossing... A classic story of radicalization.' Nancy DeWolf Smith, Wall Street Journal

'Curry has crafted something complex and worthy of attention, a film that asks hard questions about environmentalism, activism, and the way we define terrorism.' Pamela Biery, Orion Magazine

'[A] remarkable and moving film...The environmental documentary genre can be ripe for groupthink and complacency, and occasionally I find myself refreshed to see a doc that forces viewers to challenge their own preconceptions and opinions. If a Tree Falls...is one such film.' Keith Goetzman, Utne Reader

'[The film] compels audience members to think about (or re-think) a number of complex situations and uncomfortable questions... It's a fascinating film.' Scott Feinberg, ScottFeinberg.com

'A fascinating, evenhanded look at the ELF.' Hal Bernton, Seattle Times

'A truly fascinating documentary that unravels the complex morality of taking on a cause, this movie is the perfect starting point for what we can only hope is a continuing discussion of how to care for the planet.' Katherine Monk, Vancouver Sun

'The gripping documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front offers an intimate look at the radical environmental group.' Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times

'One of the more personal and intimate environmental docs in recent memory...It's a powerful tale; one guaranteed to generate heated discussion.' Steve Ramos, Box Office Magazine

'A stunning look at one of the most fascinating groups of people in the modern world. It pulls no punches, and it provides no easy outs.' Alex Katz, Flixist

'Meticulously researched, thought-provoking, balanced and humane new doc...A riveting cat-and-mouse game with revealing comments from felines and rodents alike.' David Lamble, The Bay Area Reporter

'A breath of fresh air, a documentary about a volatile subject matter that has the tenor of serious journalism.' Shawn Levy, The Oregonian

'Manages to not only provide extraordinary insight into this formerly clandestine group, but illuminates the group's actions without excusing them.' Neal Morris, Independent Weekly

'A gimlet-eyed glimpse into the roots of terrorism and the politics behind its prosecution...Provides a concise, temperate but penetrating history of how the ELF came to be...Curry lays out the strategies of the ELF with precision and clarity, abetted by handsome animation and terrific ancillary players.' John Anderson, Variety

'An infuriating and tear-jerking examination of the Earth Liberation Front.' Karina Longworth, LA Weekly

'Engaging...Addresses thorny issues surrounding deforestation, dissent and civil (and uncivil) disobedience in the post-9/11 era.' Anthony Kaufman, The Wall Street Journal online

'This film is so dense, packed, and well-crafted that it demands multiple viewings.' Matthew Groves, Alternative Chronicle

'A great film for anyone who likes to think about some of the most important, difficult issues of our time.' Rick Marianetti, Examiner.com

'It's simple, to the point, and effective...will definitely make you think...Curry deserves credit for working so steadfastly to share multiple points of view. He's fascinated by the inner workings of the law, the contradictions of principles and the factors that drive people to do things they'd otherwise never do.' Jeremy Matthews, Moving Pictures Network

'It's like '25th Hour' meets 'The Weather Underground.' We appreciated [the filmmaker's] immersion in the project, his access to the subject and his even-handedness in presenting both sides of the story.' Nashville Film Festival Jury, on presenting the Best Documentary Award


Main credits

Curry, Marshall (screenwriter)
Curry, Marshall (film director)
Curry, Marshall (film producer)
Curry, Marshall (film editor)
Cullman, Sam (film director)
Cullman, Sam (film producer)
Cullman, Sam (cinematographer)
Hamacheck, Matthew (screenwriter)
Hamacheck, Matthew (film editor)
McGowan, Daniel (interviewee)

Other credits

Cinematography, Sam Cullman; music, James Baxter, The National.

Docuseek2 subjects

Distributor subjects

American Democracy
American Studies
At-risk Youth
Civil Disobedience
Civil Rights
Criminal Justice
Environmental Ethics
Forests and Rainforests
Human Rights
National Security
Social Justice
Social Psychology


radicalization, environmental activist, Earth Liberation Front, sabotage, disillusionment, FBI, domestic terrorist, Daniel McGowan, ELF, arsons, Vail ski lodge, cinema verite, house arrest, timber companies, law enforcement,"If A Tree Falls",Bullfrog Films

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