Image: Screenshot via ifatreefallsfilm.com
When I first met Daniel McGowan, he was living in a vegetarian coop house in Brooklyn—the first house I knew that did its own on-site composting in New York City—and working for the Rainforest Foundation. He's now serving a seven-year sentence in a Communications Management Unit (CMU), two of which exist in the country and are "experimental" units designed to hold high-risk inmates, including terrorists.
Marshall Curry, the director of 2005 Academy Award Nominee Street Fight, was recently at Sundance screening his latest, "If a Tree Falls," a film that focuses on Daniel's case.Daniel is in the CMU because his sentence for involvement in two arsons at Oregon logging operations was given "terrorism enhancement," despite that he was classified as a low-security prisoner.
"If A Tree Falls" is a must-see. Described as "part coming-of-age tale, part cops-and-robbers thriller" that asks hard questions about environmentalism, activism, and the way we define terrorism, the film tells Daniel's story. It had me captured every minute of the way, even though I'd already considered myself knowledgeable about Daniel's case.
Director Marshall Curry answered a few questions once he got back from Sundance, where the film won an award for documentary editing. Here's what he had to say.
Do you see If A Tree Falls as an activist film, and is there a particular message you want viewers to take from it?
Marshall Curry: I think to many people the term "activist film" implies a film with a single point of view—something designed to provoke outrage and urge action on a particular issue—sort of the film equivalent of a rally. If a Tree Falls is not that kind of film. It has a strong point of view, but it's a complex point of view that I think reflects the complexity of the story, and it's our hope that it will challenge simplistic thinking on all sides.
It could be seen as a different kind of activist film, however, since we hope that by looking at the ELF, it will hopefully encourage activists to think carefully about the ethics and effectiveness of different kinds of actions. And we also hope it will encourage the rest of society to realize that the way that the government responds to activism can either radicalize people or can bring them into the democratic process.
Do you think the heightened public awareness of environmental issues, compared with just a few years ago, helped to generate an audience for the film?
MC: I think there's a strong audience for the film—it combines a number of hot topics in a fresh and surprising way—activism, environmentalism, terrorism. It's an environmental film without being 90 minutes of finger-wagging. We tried to tell the story in a dramatic way that has a cops-and-robbers feel, going behind the scene in the ELF arsons, the battles with police, and the investigation that cracked the largest and first ELF cell in America.
Can you describe, particularly for people who haven't seen the film or read about Daniel's case, some of the most surprising hurdles that Daniel has faced because of his status as a terrorist?
MC: Daniel received the "Terrorism Enhancement" when he was sentenced to prison, which was a formal statement by the court that his actions were "terrorism." It's unclear exactly how that enhancement will affect him in the long run, but it will definitely place him on a list of successful terrorism prosecutions, and will almost certainly make it harder for him to travel or find work when he is released from prison. It has also led to him being placed in a Communications Management Unit (CMU), that is essentially the "terrorist wing" of a federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
Can you describe how much access to Daniel you were able to get?
MC: The film follows Daniel from the time he was released on house arrest, waiting for his trial, until the time that he reported to prison to begin serving a seven year sentence. While he was on house arrest, Sam Cullman (cinematographer and co-director) and I had free access to him, and he was surprisingly forthright and reflective. After being put in in the Communications Management Unit, things changed radically.
He had extremely restricted access to the outside world—only a few minutes of phone calls every month which were monitored, and he had to visit his wife through bullet proof glass. At one point, we tried to interview him in prison but were told that the prison wouldn't allow it "for safety and security reasons." He was able to write and receive letters, but they were all monitored and there was a long lag in receiving them. A few months ago the Center For Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit on his behalf and on behalf of others in the CMU, and soon after that he was moved into the general population of the prison which is where he is now.
[Editor's note: Since receiving Marshall Curry's responses, Daniel has been moved back into a CMU, this time at Terra Haute. Read more about his story in a recent article in The Nation, or from supportdaniel.org.]
To see the film, look for festivals it will be playing this spring, or in theaters this summer.
More on environmental films and environmental activism
Sundance Festival's Eco-films Climb "The Last Mountain"
Focus Earth 2: The Beginning of Ecoterrorism
Focus Earth 2: Saving The Whales, Is This Eco-Terrorism?