Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat in America — according to the FBI — was a radical environmentalist group. Between 1995 and 2001, members of the Earth Liberation Front operated in separate anonymous cells, committing acts of arson across the western United States.
The group targeted ski resorts, lumber companies, SUV dealerships and Forest Service ranger stations, causing millions of dollars in damage. In the documentary If a Tree Falls, director Marshall Curry tells the story of the organization's rise and fall.
"Part of the story," Curry tells NPR's Neal Conan, "is a look at a small ... faction of the environmental movement which became disaffected and began to feel like the democratic process wasn't working, and they needed to do more radical actions."
The film — which was nominated for an Academy Award — focuses particularly on why one member, Daniel McGowan, decided to use violence.
McGowan was arrested in December 2005 as part of a nationwide roundup of Earth Liberation Front members. And that's when Curry first happened upon this story.
Curry was working on another documentary at the time — Racing Dreams, which follows three young people with dreams of being NASCAR drivers. Curry's wife witnessed McGowan's arrest at her office.
When Curry began the project, he didn't know whether McGowan was innocent or guilty. McGowan — who grew up in Queens, N.Y., studied business in college and had rarely spent a night outdoors — didn't match Curry's concept of someone who might become a radical environmentalist.
"I'd talked to him before, a number of times," says Curry, "and you would never guess that he could have something like that in his past. And so that was kind of the initial question that drove the movie. It was: How did this happen?"
The other part of the film focuses on the morphing definition of "terrorism." The acts of arson committed by the group caused millions of dollars in damage, but no people were harmed.
"And to use the same word to describe al-Qaida, to use that same word to also describe [the Earth Liberation Front], they feel like that's just inappropriate," says Curry.
In McGowan's case, federal judges used a legal maneuver known as terrorism enhancement to allow the acts of arson to qualify as terrorism. McGowan is serving out a seven-year sentence at a highly restrictive prison known as a Communications Management Unit.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Before 9/11, the FBI labeled a radical environmental group as the country's number-one domestic terrorism threat. After years of investigation, authorities conducted a nationwide roundup of its members. They include Daniel McGowan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IF A TREE FALLS")
DANIEL MCGOWAN: In 2001, I was involved with the Earth Liberation Front, and I was involved in two separate arsons in one year. I think people think it's just a bunch of young crazies walking around with gas cans and lighting fire that pisses them off. And then they think: What if I burn things that piss me off? That's kind of crazy - you know, which it is kind of crazy. But I think people just need to understand that this thing is complex, and it's not that simple.
CONAN: An excerpt from the film called "If a Tree Falls," a story of the Earth Liberation Front that focuses on how and why Daniel McGowan decided to use violence, and on our definition of terrorism. This is our third installment on our annual look at the Oscar nominees for best documentary feature. If you go to our website npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION, you'll see all the films we've talked about so far. Marshall Curry directed and produced "If a Tree Falls." He joins us now from KUFM in Missoula, Montana, where his film is being screened at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. And congratulations on the nomination.
MARSHALL CURRY: Thank you so much.
CONAN: And you were in the middle of another picture called "Racing Dreams" when the opportunity sort of knocked on your door.
CURRY: That's right. "Racing Dreams is about three kids, two boys and a girl, who are 11, 12 and 13, and they want to become NASCAR drivers when they grow up. So it's quite a different subject matter. But my wife came home from work one day and said, you'll never guess what happened today. Four federal agents walked into the office and arrested that guy, Daniel McGowan. And he was charged with having participated in two acts of arson against timber facilities in Oregon some years before, and faced life in prison for that.
CONAN: And faced life in prison. At first, your wife thought, well, clearly, this must be some sort of mistake. He didn't do it.
CURRY: That's right. So that was - when we started the film, we really didn't know whether he'd done it or not. But for me, that didn't matter as much as the story of, you know, how could this guy be in this position. He's got a very unlikely background for someone who becomes a radical environmentalist. He'd grown up in Rockaway, Queens. His dad's a New York cop. He was a business major in college. He'd never spent a night outdoors before he graduated from college. And so we - ultimately, it turned out that, yes, he had done these fires. And we became very interested in what would lead somebody to do something like that.
CONAN: Did you ever feel like, you know, the neighbor who's interviewed in the 11 o'clock news? He always seemed like such a quiet man.
CURRY: No. I mean, there was a lot of that to it. I mean, I'd talked to him before a number of times, and you would never guess that he could have something like that in his past. And so that was kind of the initial question that drove the movie. It was: How did this happen? And part of the story is an individual person's coming-of-age story. And part of the story is a look at a small fraction - faction of the environmental movement which became disaffected and began to feel like the democratic process wasn't working, and they needed to do more radical actions than they've been doing up until that point.
CONAN: And this is a faction that carried out any number of actions in addition to the two arsons that Daniel McGowan admitted to. And they seemingly took great care to make sure that no one was injured in the process. And this is Lauren Regan of the McGowan legal defense team, who argues that terrorism was - may not have been the appropriate language and, indeed, the appropriate legal procedure to use in this case.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IF A TREE FALLS")
LAUREN REGAN: The word terrorism, to me, is about killing humans. It's about ending innocent life. And that is the antithesis of what these people did. Concern for life was a very big part of the plan and implementation of these actions and is why no one was ever harmed or injured in them.
CONAN: And that's important, but that's not the legal definition of terrorism.
CURRY: Right. I mean, in the film - one of the big questions of the film is whether these arsons are terrorism, and there's a legal question. And then there's also... just sort of the social question, the way that the media and individual people use the word terrorism. And we spend time with Daniel and with other former members of the Earth Liberation Front, and we also spend a lot of time with the arson victims and with the prosecutor in case and the detective that spent years trying to crack these guys. And it's a tricky question.
I mean, from the perspective of the arson victims, they felt real intimidation. These are huge multimillion dollar arsons. And even though no one's ever been hurt in an Earth Liberation Front fire, it's a risk to a fireman or somebody could be asleep under their desk. And, you know, from their perspective, these things were designed to intimidate them, to try to keep them from doing something that's legal, like cutting timber or, you know, how to slaughter - horse slaughterhouse or things like that.
But from the perspective of people who are defending the Earth Liberation Front, they see these fires as more like the Boston Tea Party. For them, these are symbolic property destruction in which nobody's hurt. And to use the same word to describe al-Qaida, to use that same word to also describe these folks, they feel like that's just inappropriate, you know, expansion or stretching of the word terrorism.
CONAN: Well, there's the - applying the word is also applying the law. And if arson is considered terrorism, you get a stiffer sentence.
CURRY: That's right. So these folks faced what they call the terrorism enhancement, which could - at the time that they were arguing this question, we didn't actually know how it might affect their time in prison. And the terrorism enhancement is sort of a specific legal designation that these acts of arson qualify as terrorism. And not to get too pointy-headed about it, but the legal definition has to do with whether the arsons were designed to influence the actions of government.
Daniel ended up getting the terrorism enhancement and, as a result, is now in a special prison called a communication management unit prison. It's - basically there are one of two them in America that have been set up for terrorists, and he is treated much differently than someone who would be imprisoned for having burned a multimillion dollar building for insurance purposes or for, you know, some - or for revenge against an old girlfriend.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. As Daniel McGowan suggested in that earlier cut, we heard the case is not simple. The whole question is not simple. After years of investigation, Kirk Engdall, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted this case, came to that same conclusion.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IF A TREE FALLS")
KIRK ENGDALL: (As himself) Why did they do such a horrible thing? And you look at their background and you look at their childhood and you look at how they've evolved from the days when they committed all these crimes, then instead of just being a cold mug shot on a piece of paper, they become human beings. And so you begin to understand them. And that's not that you're saying you approve of their conduct or their behavior, but you gain an understanding and insight as to how it came to pass that they started doing these things.
CONAN: And that doesn't sound like your typical hardnosed, hard-as-nails prosecutor.
CURRY: But he is. I mean, he has argued in many capital cases. He has put a lot of people in prison. He spent years putting these guys in prison, and he doesn't - I mean, to be very clear, he does not think they shouldn't go to prison. He does, but he thinks that these are complicated questions. And honestly, what was so interesting as we made this movie, which took five years from the first time we started shooting until it premiered at Sundance last year, what was so amazing was that everybody who spent a lot of time thinking about this case saw it as very complex.
When outsiders saw the case, it's very polarized. It's, you know, it attracts very strong opinions. People, you know, scream at each other about environmentalism and terrorism. These are hot button issues, but we found that whether it was someone like Daniel McGowan, who, you know, took part in these arsons, but then decided after a period that he didn't think that they were effective anymore and left the Earth Liberation Front, or whether it was the prosecutor. All of those folks who really dug into the case began to see complexity there. And that's what's so great about being able to make an 85-minute documentary, is you can get past the surface and start really digging into the emotions and the human drama and also the, you know, subtle policy questions.
CONAN: Marshall Curry is with us. His film is "If A Tree Falls," story of the Earth Liberation Front. This is not your first Oscar nomination. You made a film called "Street Fight" about Cory Booker's first run for mayor in Newark, New Jersey, which was also nominated for an Oscar. How did that change your life and your life as a filmmaker?
CURRY: Well, that was my first feature length film, and honestly, I, you know, I shot it. I edited it. I drove the car. I got the releases. I did the sound. It was really kind of a classic, you know, run and gun situation. So I had no expectations for that film. It was just a project that, you know, I had passion up for, but my wife and I used to joke it that we were planning on, you know, renting out a room and getting a projector and some pizzas and showing it to our friends, so they could see what I'd been doing the last couple of years.
So when it ended up getting nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy and was on PBS, I was, you know, completely blown away. The - and it did changed my life in some ways. In fiction film, if you get an Oscar nomination, it's really radical. In documentaries, it gets you the meeting for your next projects...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CURRY: ...but it doesn't necessarily get you the money. So I'm still, you know, been rejected from a number of grants and festivals, things like that since then.
CONAN: Interesting, also you mentioned that. This is the last year that the current rules for documentaries are in effect. Next year, a new set of rules are in effect. And as I understand, this film, "If A Tree Falls," was made in cooperation with POV and PBS, and under the new rules, it wouldn't qualify.
CURRY: Well, no, I think, it would qualify. It had a theatrical release put out by a company called Oscilloscope that, you know, real theatrical distributor. So it played in many cities, and so it would have qualified, even though it was funded in part by television.
CONAN: And so I'm just curious. As a working filmmaker, somebody who's involved in this business, how important is that theatrical release, and what do you think of the new rules?
CURRY: A theatrical release, in most cases with documentaries, is a loss leader honestly. I mean, most documentaries lose money, but they get reviewed. They get publicity, and they kind of become, in potential audience's minds, you know, a legitimate movie that then they want to see when it comes out on DVD or they want to watch when it's on television. And so - and unfortunately, lots of critics have been, you know, the budgets for critics have been getting cut, and they can't review television. So theatrical release is one of the only ways to get top critics to review your films. And it's also just great to have audiences see the movies on screen in a room full of other folks.
CONAN: Do you go into the audience and watch the audiences watch your movies?
CURRY: Sometimes. You know, when it starts off, I'll do that more. And usually a movie launches at festivals, so, you know, we started at Sundance, and I went to, you know, all of those screenings. And over time, I start to see fewer and fewer versions of it. But it's amazing to see the difference between audiences in a way that audiences see movies in different places or at different times. You know, our film was released this summer, and a lot of the film is about activism and the development of activism and how some people, you know, really work to try to stay within the democratic process or the tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience, and other people have given up on that.
And at the time that the movie was released theatrically this summer, most critics and audiences saw it as kind of a historical film, like wasn't that quaint that there used to be an activist movement in the United States so many years ago. But when the Occupy Movement started just a few months later, suddenly the movie became very relevant, and the arguments that people we're having about property destruction and protest and how should law enforcement react to protesters became very current and relevant issues. So that's part of the - one of the things that's fun about watching people and answering questions after screenings.
CONAN: Well, good luck with the Oscar and, I guess, good luck at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
CURRY: Thanks so much. And, of course, if people are interested in learning more, they can - our website is ifatreefallsfilm.com.
CONAN: Marshall Curry directed and produced "If A Tree Falls." He joined us from KUFM, our member station in Missoula, Montana. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.