An Oscar-nominated documentary tied to Eugene explores ‘eco-terrorism’ without easy heroes or villains
Before “The Artist” or “Hugo” or “The Descendents” or whatever wins best picture at the 84th Academy Awards tonight in Hollywood, before Brad Pitt or George Clooney or the “French George Clooney” (Jean Dujardin) takes home the best-actor prize, and Meryl Streep finally — maybe? — gets her second best-actress nod, watch for Eugene’s Oscar clip.
It may or may not come; instead of tree-climbing activists being pepper-sprayed downtown, or images of burned-out SUVs at a former Franklin Boulevard Chevrolet dealership, the blip of footage shown might be from New York City or Vail, Colo., or maybe even Glendale, Ore.
But rest assured, our town will have some rare representation during the film industry’s biggest night of the year.
That’s because one of the five nominees for best documentary feature is “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front,” an 85-minute film with an epicenter that is largely Eugene.
The extraordinary work of co-directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman began one day in 2005 when Elizabeth Martin, Curry’s wife, came home from work with a tale that neither she nor her husband could believe: Four federal agents had entered her Brooklyn office that afternoon and arrested Daniel McGowan, one of her employees, on eco-terrorism charges.
Curry, who at the time was working on his second documentary film — his first, 2005’s “Street Fight,” was also nominated for an Oscar — was astonished. He had met the mild-mannered McGowan, a business major in college who grew up in Queens the son of a New York City police officer, and “terrorist” was not the first thing that came to mind.
Curry had to know more. But he would have to wait more than a month to meet with McGowan in person, because McGowan was immediately flown across the country and placed in the Lane County Jail to await an appearance in front of U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin on federal charges of conspiracy arson, using a firebomb and 13 arsons in connection with the 2001 fires set at Superior Lumber Co. in Glendale and Jefferson Poplar Farm in Clatskanie.
“If a Tree Falls,” which won the documentary editing award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, is the story of a Eugene-based cell of the Earth Liberation Front — a radical eco-defense coalition born in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom and hell-bent on taking the profit motive out of environmental destruction by causing economic damage to business through the use of property damage — as told through McGowan’s personal story.
McGowan moved to Eugene in 2000, where he briefly worked at the Earth First! Journal, shortly after taking part in the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. He had gotten a job at a Manhattan public relations firm after college but, as he says in the film, his life began to change after he joined an environmental center and saw films of oil spills and mountain tops left bald by old-growth logging.
It was in Eugene that McGowan forged relationships with the co-conspirators who would parade through the Wayne L. Morse United States Courthouse in the spring and summer of 2007, on their way to federal prison terms.
Their arrests came four years after the local cell had disbanded in 2001 and were part of a nationwide sweep, called “Operation Backfire,” of suspects in what local federal prosecutor Kirk Engdahl, now retired, describes in the film as “the largest domestic terrorism case in the history of the United States.”
The arrests of 14 members of the cell were made possible after one member, Jake Ferguson of Eugene, agreed to wear a hidden tape recorder and capture incriminating words made by the others, including McGowan.
Before McGowan’s arrival here, the group had already burned down the Oakridge Ranger Station in 1996 and set fire to a Vail, Colo., ski resort in 1998 that caused $24 million in damage, among other arsons across five states. And the year after he moved to town, ELF members set fire to 35 vehicles at the former Joe Romania Chevrolet Truck Center on Franklin Boulevard, causing $1 million in damage.
But much of the film looks at what constitutes terrorism in a post-Sept. 11 world; whether arson and other property crimes in which no one is killed deserve the terrorist label.
“There was a personal element that was very interesting to me,” the 42-year-old Curry said during a phone interview last week from his Brooklyn home, referring to his fascination with McGowan’s plight. “But I also thought the larger issue of how we define terrorism was interesting and would elevate the film beyond just a human interest story.”
Some — film reviewers, bloggers and others — have questioned whether the documentary maybe leans on the side of being too sympathetic toward McGowan. New York Times film critic Stephen Holden, in reviewing the film upon its release last June, said it was “cautiously sympathetic” toward him.
Writing in The Daily Telegragh of London earlier this month, environmental reporter Louise Gray asks: “Is it right to brand this man a terrorist? This documentary did not answer the question, what it did do is raise a whole lot more and in the best way, to make you have a long, hard think.”
Writing on his New York Times blog, “Dot Earth,” before the film had made the final cut and been nominated for an Oscar, former Times’ environmental reporter Andrew Revkin said a nomination would be “a vote for fearless exploration of complexity in a world drawn to oversimplified depictions of events and problems, heroes and villains. It would be much simpler to make a film that was either deeply sympathetic or scathing considering the subject.”
A messy world
For anyone who thinks it’s too sympathetic toward McGowan or other so-called eco-terrorists, Curry says the film spends a lot of time “exploring the mistakes these people made,” and he hopes the message that comes across is that of a “cautionary tale” for both activists and government.
The film’s aim, Curry says on its website, www.ifatreefalls.com, was not to answer questions, but “to start conversations and debates ... There are some audiences (that) have been uncomfortable with the ambiguity. They want movies to have good guys and bad guys, but I think the world is messier.”
In a follow-up e-mail, after his phone interview with The Register-Guard, Curry wrote: “Almost everyone who has seen it — wherever they stand politically — has said they see it as accurate, fair and complex. The movie tries to understand the human element behind the ELF arsons — to examine ELF members, the victims of the arsons, and the members of law enforcement as three dimensional people rather than cartoonish caricatures. There may be some people who don’t want to understand their opponents — who would like to keep things tidy, with Hollywood villains and Hollywood heroes — and this probably isn’t the movie for them. I think this is a film for people who like to chew their own food. It tries to explain and understand people without excusing their actions or hiding their flaws.”
People on both sides of the story have praised the film.
“The film remained fair and faithful to all the subjects of the film and clearly demonstrated the complexity of the issues,” Engdall, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted McGowan, says on the film’s website. “I believe viewing the film would prompt law enforcement personnel and those who exercise civil disobedience to think beyond moments of confrontation and that the film will engender a greater awareness and a better understanding between police and protesters.”
At his June 4, 2007, sentencing in Eugene in front of U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken, McGowan said that as a New Yorker, he was “deeply offended” by having the terrorism label applied to him.
Labels aside, Aiken had no sympathy for McGowan that day: “You are not a poster child for environmental or other causes,” the judge told him, according to The Register-Guard’s coverage. “You are an arsonist. You are not a political prisoner, getting prosecuted for true activism. You committed arson. You created danger for other people and intended to intimidate and frighten others.”
McGowan was sentenced to seven years in federal prison and was initially housed at a special unit for terrorists in Marion, Ill. He has since been moved to another prison in Terre Haute, Ind., and is eligible for release next year.
There are plenty of local faces in the film, including activist videographer Tim Lewis, who gets plenty of screen time in interviews and who says he provided six minutes of footage used in the film, from the logging protests at Warner Creek east of Oakridge in 1996, to the disturbing June 1, 1997, footage of Eugene police pepper spraying tree-sitters in downtown Eugene; Eugene police detective Greg Harvey and former Eugene police Capt. Chuck Tilby, who worked the case; and Eugene civil rights attorney Lauren Regan who helped represent McGowan in court.
Lewis — who is in Los Angeles today hoping to meet up with Curry and Cullman after the ceremony — argues in the film that the tactics of law enforcement had a lot to do with radicalizing ELF members.
“I figure this is a once-in-a-lifetime gig,” Lewis said of staying in the same hotel as Curry and Cullman, who will attend tonight’s ceremony with their wives and some other editors and producers of the film. Lewis does not have a seat at the awards, but he does have his telescope with him, he said, in the hopes of looking out the seventh floor window of the Hotel Sofitel on Beverly Boulevard, to catch a glimpse of stars walking the red carpet. Lewis also believes the film was genuinely balanced. “I think that Marshall really sort of hit it fairly.”
Harvey and Tilby also give the film high praise.
“I thought they did a marvelous job. I thought they came away with a terrific product,” said Tilby, who recently left the Eugene Police Department to help the University of Oregon’s Department of Public Safety convert to a police force. “I think what showed is a human element we often don’t see,” Tilby said of the film. “I really thought they were objective and showed the realities of both camps.”
Getting both sides to open up was perhaps the biggest challenge in making the film, Curry said. The filmmakers were able to win McGowan’s trust early on, filming him during his house arrest at his sister’s apartment in New York, but they had to wait until McGowan and the others were sentenced in 2007 before anyone on the law enforcement side would speak with them.
Harvey said he initially feared the story would be one-sided, but once he saw the film, “I thought it was a really well-done job. I was really glad that somebody was out there trying to get the story done. It’s a big story in America.”
‘I’ll think of something’
Curry knows the odds of winning tonight are certainly better than six years ago when “Street Fight,” the story of Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker’s 2002 campaign against Sharpe James, was up against one of the best-known and highest-grossing documentaries in recent years, “March of the Penguins.” But the competition this year, as always, is stiff.
“It’s a tough one to pick this year,” he said. “It’s a great year for documentaries, so anytime you’re in that five, it’s a surprise.”
This is certainly not the first film largely shot or set in Oregon to be nominated for an Oscar. After all, 1975 best-picture winner “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” filmed at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, is one of the few films to ever sweep the four major Oscars — picture, director, actor, actress, as well as winning best adapted screenplay.
And the famous “chicken salad sandwich” scene with Jack Nicholson in 1970 best-picture nominee “Five Easy Pieces” was filmed at the Interstate 5 Denny’s on Glenwood Drive in Eugene.
Although he’s an East Coaster, Curry said he plans to represent Eugene and Oregon proudly tonight — win or lose.
As of last week, however, he had not prepared a speech. “I’ll think of something (to say), yes,” he said. “But I don’t want to jinx it.”
“This is a film for people who like to chew their own food.”
— MARSHALL CURRY, DIRECTOR OF “IF A TREE FALLS”