A building targeted by the Earth Liberation Front as seen in If a Tree Falls

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Marshall Curry’s new documentary, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (opening this Friday, July 15th at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas) suggests the answer to this age-old philosophical riddle is, emphatically, yes.

It was, however, not the sound of a single tree that was heard by environmental activists in Oregon and Northern California, but that of acres of old-growth forest being toppled by rapacious lumber companies. Protests were frequent throughout the 1980s and ‘90s but delivered (at best) patchy results: marching, sloganeering, and civil disobedience didn’t seem to work as well in remote logging towns as they did in the big city.

Enter the Earth Liberation Front. Founded in Britain in 1992, the E.L.F. “uses economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare to stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment”. (Their words, not mine.) Radicalized by harsh police tactics — including q-tip swabbings in which protesters were held in stress positions while their eyes were daubed with pepper spray — some Pacific Northwest activists decided it was time for more extreme measures.

Among the E.L.F.’s earliest American recruits was Daniel McGowan. On the surface, the bewhiskered and chubby McGowan seems an unlikely candidate for radical activism: born in Brooklyn in 1974, this son of a New York City police officer had majored in business and been hired by a Manhattan public relations firm.

Daniel was not long for the world of wingtips and three-martini lunches, however. A chance encounter with an activist in New York’s Union Square opened his eyes to environmental issues, and he soon threw himself headlong into the movement’s deeper end by joining an E.L.F. cell in Eugene, Oregon.

The cell settled on arson as a tactic and began burning down buildings, including a Forest Service ranger station and a Bureau of Land Management office. The federal government took umbrage, dubbed the E.L.F. ‘eco-terrorists’, and spared no expense in tracking them down.

Thanks to a loose-lipped cell member — a heroin addict who snitched in exchange for his freedom — the G-Men finally rounded up the co-conspirators in 2005. In turn, most of them plead out to avoid long prison terms, leaving McGowan the prosecution’s main target.

The story of McGowan’s transformation from mild-mannered high school student to radical eco-terrorist is interwoven with footage of the days and weeks leading up to his date with judicial destiny. With Daniel taking full responsibility for his actions, these pre-trial segments lack the dramatic heft of similar scenes in your typical ‘justice perverted’ documentary. There’s no doubt he’ll be going to jail — the only question is for how long.

And what is a ‘terrorist’, anyway? E.L.F. members interviewed in the film are adamant that what they did was not ‘terrorism’: their actions never injured or killed anyone. Those closest to the arson attacks would disagree, however, and one could easily argue that any pre-meditated act of violence or property destruction could be considered terrorism.

If a Tree Falls suggests that perhaps the t-word is simply a handy way for the government to reclassify certain crimes in order to pad their successful terrorism prosecution stats. In this case, they got their man: Daniel McGowan is currently incarcerated in the Orwellian-sounding ‘Communications Management Unit’ in Marion, Illinois — a prison designed to house and humiliate the most dangerous inmates in America.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...