The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2011

All Issues
SEPT 2011 Issue
Express Docs In Sight

IF A TREE FALLS’S SAM CULLMAN In Conversation with Williams Cole

Given the infamous anniversary that this month of September brings, Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman’s documentary If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is a film relevant on many levels. The film is centered around the story of Daniel McGowan, who took part in two arsons committed in the name of the radical environmental group known as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Through many years of filming McGowan after he and the ELF cell he was a part of were arrested by federal agents, If A Tree Falls explores complex questions about social change through means that target private property rather than human life and how government prosecution in the post-9/11 era aggressively uses wide definitions of terrorism—a strategy with potentially more destructive consequences than the dark eras of Red-baiting that stain American history. I spoke with Sam Cullman, co-director, producer and cinematographer of If A Tree Falls (who was also Assistant Producer of 2005’s Giuliani Time, a film I produced with Kevin Keating).

Williams Cole (Rail): I think it strikes people that Daniel McGowan is not the type of personality that would stereotypically be involved in militant actions like arson and property damage, though his convictions are clear and his rationale is undeniable in many ways.  How did this inform the message of the film?

Sam Cullman: Daniel is a native New Yorker—the son of a transit cop and a business major in college who hadn’t really known the wilderness or ever even slept outside until after he’d graduated. Without a doubt, he didn’t fit the profile of what you might imagine for a radical environmentalist—someone who faced terrorism charges as well as a staggering potential sentence of life in prison for arson. This was something we were sensitive to in making the film—and I think it also helped us get to the intersection of issues that the documentary explores. This is a mainstream-seeming guy anchoring the story, not some Black Bloc Anarchist type. You can see yourself in his shoes or at least probably know someone like him and (for a little while, anyway) I think that creates space for viewers to suspend judgment of Daniel and his choices. One of the first things Daniel says in the film is, “This thing is complex and it’s not that simple.” From there, the film sets out to tell Daniel’s story, to explore why and how he did what he did in all its complexity of cause and effect. We filmed him for a year and a half —5 years after he’d committed these crimes and turned away from the ELF. So there was a lot of time and the circumstances were right for Daniel to reflect on his past and the consequences of his choices—many of which had a devastating impact on both the arson victims and also the movement itself. And so in exploring the progression of Daniel’s path as an activist and the development of the movement that he joined, we felt indebted to make a film that mirrored the complexity of issues and perspectives inherent to this history. At its core, the film tells a political story that should test peoples’ preconceived beliefs about activism, environmentalism, and the meaning of terrorism in America today.

Rail: One of the most important questions the film asks, from my point of view, is how the term “terrorism” is defined and used. How did this play into the subject of the film?

Cullman: The question of terrorism is a central theme in the film. It’s a question that the United Nations has struggled to define—without consensus—for decades. And it’s also a question that our own federal government, which pursued and won enhanced sentences for ELF members in this case, appears divided over. Different wording is used by federal agencies from Homeland Security to the State Department to the F.B.I. to define the meaning of terrorism. And it’s important to note that the term has been applied by the government and in the media to call out environmental activists who came before the ELF and were much less radical—like those activists at Warner Creek (that first forest protest in the film) or even Judi Bari who all basically engaged in 1960s style civil disobedience. And of course you can look back at social and political movements across the history of our country and find the word applied to “troublemakers” of all stripes. There are many shades of gray in this film and the story we cover, but on this issue, I think the Police Captain in Eugene, Oregon, got it right when, towards the end of the film he evokes the old adage, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” and, referring to the charges that these ELF members were threatened with life in prison for, says, “Arson is arson. But is it terrorism?” The message here is that it’s hard not to see terrorism both legally and, certainly rhetorically, as a very subjectively applied term.  

Rail: And that subjectively applied term has real effects on an open society.

SC: Yes, as a society we should take pause at this if for no other reason than that the term “terrorism” has become such a central part of our lives and collective mindset since 9/11. And whether it is security checks at airports or enhanced surveillance procedures like warrantless wiretapping, it’s clear that anti-terrorism enforcement has gained new powers. When we consider against whom these powers may be applied, we should take pause at what becomes a very slippery slope. It’s been said that the word terrorism brings more heat than light—and I think there is wisdom in that.  This is not to diminish the fear and destructive violation that the arson victims of the ELF experienced. While the ELF had taken extraordinary precautions not to harm life in these actions—and their track record is impeccable—arson is absolutely unpredictable and dangerous and while the ELF may have seen themselves as pacifists, their victim’s trauma was real. The folks we interviewed talked about installing alarms in their homes where they never had before and feared getting into their cars after the arsons, not knowing if it had been rigged with a bomb.  But while some people who have seen the film are certain that these ELF actions were surely examples of domestic terrorism, others are not convinced and have wondered, under these terms, if we should also think of victims of domestic violence as having experienced acts of terrorism. And what about victims of theft or violent assault? Their point, I think, is that the term starts to get really broad and that it becomes dangerous as the label expands.

Rail: And if the label is so malleable according to the whims of prosecutors and the media, then that adds more danger?

SC: Democracies rely on people believing in the system of justice. And I think the subjectivity inherent in the terrorism application can only work to separate people from their faith in the fair workings of their government and society. Daniel McGowan, whom the film centers around, would often note that senseless property damage as opposed to the politically motivated kind is treated very differently. He’d point to the fact that kids who burn cars and riot in the streets after a sports match typically don’t get much more than criminal mischief charges, while his environmentally and ideologically-motivated arsons were met with terrorism enhancements and the threat of life in prison.

Rail: Everyone that cares about social change—be it to the left or the right—considers the viability of methods beyond peaceful protest and conventional politics. What did the actions of the ELF teach us about this viability in contemporary America?

SC: I think this film can potentially offer lessons to people interested in social movements and political change, be they radical, militant, mainstream, or otherwise. Ultimately, it is not just a film about environmental activism and questions of terrorism, but it’s a kind of coming-of-age story that asks audiences to consider their place in the world—to consider where their passions lie and what they’re going to do about it. ELF members lost confidence in the operation, integrity, and efficacy of government and society to confront the challenges we face with climate change and environmental degradation. But where one might admire their passion and willingness to take action in a world where real change is so difficult, the story is also full of warnings about the viability of more radical routes to social change. We can’t ignore the devastation these ELF actions caused their victims. And as Daniel points out in the film, the primary reaction to the arsons in the media and society at large was not to focus on the issues they’d hoped to raise, but the arsons themselves. And since, as a movement, the ELF was born of frustration and evolved in frustration, I think it was ultimately more of an alienating rather than a galvanizing force for the people they wanted to reach. Unable to harvest a broader movement, they became isolated in their activism and very isolatable by the police and federal authorities. And where mainstream environmentalists have also been quick to distance themselves from this movement, I think there are lessons for them as well in this story as they set out to confront the very real and daunting issues we face with the environment. How had they come to lose these potential allies?

Rail: Yet these kinds of political passions for change are part of viable democracy. So what is the central lesson?

SC: Without a doubt, the heavy charges and terrorism enhancements in this case have likely provoked reconsideration by would-be arsonists, and the ELF has certainly been quieted in recent years, perhaps in the wake of this case. You can’t fault the federal government for trying to combat and discourage the use of arson—but as of late, tough sentences and “terror” charges have been brought in cases that did not involve fires at all. And one law in particular, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, criminalizes acts of “economic disruption” such as aggressive picketing, boycotts, and undercover investigations by activists that result in profit losses to animal enterprise—business like fur farms, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and the like. While that law has already been used to successfully put members of at least one activist group in prison, one dismissed indictment in 2009 demonstrates the potential chilling effect for activists who we might otherwise think of as engaged in peaceful protest. Four individuals were indicted under the AETA for chanting and distributing flyers claimed to be threatening at home demonstrations outside the houses of professors involved in animal testing research. The charges were eventually dropped but the defendants were placed under house arrest for half a year. Activists look at cases like this ask themselves if their activism is worth the costs. Certainly this is problematic—civil disobedience and the like is, after all, a cornerstone of our democracy.  As alluded to in the film, what about the Boston Tea Party? Or what about the legacy of Martin Luther King who called his work a “moral duty”?

We’ve talked about this film as a cautionary tale that on the one hand encourages activists to think about the ethics and effectiveness of the actions in which they choose to get involved. What is really the best path to effect the change that we so desperately need? On the other hand, we also hope it encourages the rest of society to realize that the way government responds to activism can either radicalize people or bring them into the democratic process. Activist or otherwise, we hope that people walk away from the movie thinking about their own stake in all this.

Check for screenings and further information. The DVD has also just been released by Oscilloscope Laboratories,, and the film will broadcast on POV on September 13.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2011

All Issues