Oscar-nominated film captures radicalization of environmentalism
"If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" was nominated for best documentary feature at the 2012 Academy Award.

A film about an Eugene-based cell of the Earth Liberation Front was nominated for best documentary feature at the 2012 Academy Awards. The story focuses on the radicalization of an unlikely New Yorker — who would eventually move to Oregon and take part in setting fire to the offices of Superior Lumber in Glendale — along with the serious consequences of his actions.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

Lost in the glitz, glamor and general nonsense of the Academy Awards on Sunday night was a film nominated for best documentary feature, and it’s one that hits close to home for Oregonians.

The film is titled, “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” by directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman.

On the surface, the film chronicles the rise and fall of a Eugene-based cell of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a radical environmental group that rose to prominence during the 1990s and early 2000s for setting fire to timber companies, slaughterhouses and even a $12 million ski lodge in an effort to discourage those it viewed as harming the environment.

The footage itself will look familiar to many locals, since much of the story takes place in Eugene and focuses on the group that torched offices at Superior Lumber Co. in Glendale and Jefferson Poplar Farm in Clatskanie.

But the story is about much more than the battles between environmentalists and loggers; it’s about radicalization, consequences and our notion of the word “terrorism.”

The film begins with Daniel McGowan, an affable and seemingly ordinary New Yorker who just so happens to be facing ecoterrorism charges and a possible life sentence in jail.

McGowan comes across as somewhat buffoonish, but certainly not dangerous or volatile, and among the last people you’d suspect of being labeled a terrorist.

And therein lies the film’s brilliance.

The directors skillfully navigate the process of how McGowan — a business major in college and son of a New York City police officer — becomes radicalized.

The film touches on old-growth logging and habitat destruction as part of the reason for McGowan’s transformation, but also shows some truly horrific footage of police beating and pepper-spraying environmental protesters in Eugene. It captures the bitterness, frustration and sense of hopelessness that led a group of idealists to make the jump from protest to terrorism.

“When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you, what are you supposed to do?” McGowan says in the film. “Why are we being so gentle in our activism when this is what’s happening?”

But the film is not a ploy for sympathy for the ELF and environmental extremism. Indeed, the footage shows the group as ill-informed, naive and reckless, especially when they they firebomb Jefferson Poplar Farm based on faulty information.

There’s a nice balance between the activists and those in the logging industry who suffer as a result of their actions.

Steve Swanson, who was president of Superior Lumber and had his offices in Glendale firebombed by McGowan’s group, provides a reality check and face to those victimized.

“After the fire, we really looked over our shoulder,” Swanson says in the film.

The cat-and-mouse game between the ELF and police attempting to arrest them provides quick-paced action, and McGowan’s impending prison sentence knocks home the very real consequences of the ELF’s actions.

At its heart, the film provides a window into the process and consequences of radicalization. It doesn’t justify the actions of McGowan and the ELF, but it does allow the audience to understand why it happened.

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Note: Find screenings for the film at this website, or simply order, rent or stream the documentary from Netflixs here.


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