August 23, 2011, 7:00 P.M.

The Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108, George Lucas Building, USC School of Cinematic Arts, 900 W. 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007

Outside the Box [Office] and Oscilloscope Laboratories invite you and a guest to a special screening of

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Directed by Marshall Curry
Co-Directed by Sam Cullman
Written and Edited by Marshall Curry and Matthew Hamachek

7:00 P.M. on Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

The Ray Stark Family Theatre

George Lucas Building, SCA 108
900 W. 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007

*Winner of Documentary Editing Award -- 2011 Sundance Film Festival*
*Winner of Best Documentary Award -- Nashville Film Festival*
*Winner of the Environmental Visions Award -- Dallas Film Festival*

Available on DVD & Blu-ray
on Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

About If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

In December 2005, Daniel McGowan was arrested by Federal agents in a nationwide sweep of radical environmentalists involved with the Earth Liberation Front -- a group the FBI has called America’s “number one domestic terrorism threat.” For years, the ELF—operating in separate anonymous cells without any central leadership—had launched spectacular arsons against dozens of businesses they accused of destroying the environment: timber companies, SUV dealerships, wild horse slaughterhouses, and a $12 million ski lodge at Vail, Colorado.
With the arrest of Daniel and thirteen others, the government had cracked what was probably the largest ELF cell in America and brought down the group responsible for the very first ELF arsons in this country.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of this ELF cell, by focusing on the transformation and radicalization of one of its members. Part coming-of-age tale, part cops-and-robbers thriller, the film interweaves a verite chronicle of Daniel on house arrest as he faces life in prison, with a dramatic recounting of the events that led to his involvement with the group. And along the way it asks hard questions about environmentalism, activism, and the way we define terrorism.
Drawing from striking archival footage -- much of it never before seen -- and intimate interviews with ELF members, and with the prosecutor and detective who were chasing them, If a Tree Falls explores the tumultuous period from 1995 until early 2001 when environmentalists were clashing with timber companies and law enforcement, and the word “terrorism” had not yet been altered by 9/11.

Provided courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. Not Rated. Running time: 85 minutes.

To learn more about the film and to view the trailer, click here.


Director's Statement

On a cold December day about five years ago, my wife came home from work and told me that four Federal agents had entered her office and arrested one of her employees—Daniel McGowan—for “eco-terrorism.”
We were shocked. I had met Daniel through my wife, and he did not fit my expectation of what an “eco-terrorist” would be like. He had grown up in Rockaway, Queens, was the son of a N.Y. cop, and had been a business major in college. He doesn't look or talk like a revolutionary -- he's less Che Guevara or Malcolm X than a typical "boy next door" -- someone's little brother or employee or son. And I'm always intrigued when reality cuts against a stereotype.
How had someone like him found himself facing life in prison for terrorism? Was it accurate to use the word “terrorism” to describe property destruction in which no one was hurt? What was this shadowy group, the ELF? How had it formed and why? What could make someone decide that arson was a reasonable response to environmental problems? Sam Cullman (Cinematographer/Co-director) and I decided to find out.

At first we thought it might be a short film, but the more we dug in, the more interesting it became. There’s a saying that the deeper you go, the muddier the water gets, and I think this was true for us.   
Everywhere we looked, our expectations were challenged. Characters said the opposite of what we expected. People who we thought might be fanatical—on one on side or the other—turned out to be thoughtful. Things we thought would be clear, were actually quite complex. And there were no easy heroes or villains.
When I began editing the film with Matt Hamachek, we tried to build those moments of surprise into the film and give the audience the same experience we had – an unsettling ride that shifts your sympathies and leaves you with a more nuanced view of the world.  
Right after Daniel’s arrest, when we were considering making a film on the ELF, we couldn’t believe that no one had ever made one before. But once we began working on it, we discovered one reason why. Getting access was an enormous challenge. Many of the subjects were facing life in prison as we were shooting, and the high stakes made people understandably skittish about going on camera. They had also seen the way that media sensationalized their crimes and branded them terrorists, and they didn’t want to risk that happening again. The prosecutor, the detective, and the arson victims were also reluctant to talk with us at first. They didn’t want to get sandbagged by a filmmaker with an agenda who would edit their words out of context.

But we were patient (spending four years shooting the film), persistent, and honest with people, and eventually we won their trust. I’m not that interested in movies that just set up straw men to knock down. I’d rather let strong arguments and powerful characters bang up against each other, and see what happens. And I like allowing the audience’s sympathy to really shift around during the film—sometimes in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
If a Tree Falls is a film that asks questions more than it answers them. And by the end of it, I think the audience is left not with a single, easily directed feeling of outrage – though there is plenty of outrage in the story. But instead they are left with an uneasy sense that things are more complicated than they seem from the surface.

-- Marshall Curry

About Outside the Box [Office]

Outside the Box [Office] is a weekly showcase for upcoming releases highlighting world cinema, documentary and independent film titles. Recognizing a need for greater diversity on campus, the series will draw from around the globe to present movies that may challenge, inspire or simply entertain. The weekly screenings will be on Wednesday and Sunday nights (and other select dates, as they arise) in the School of Cinematic Arts Complex, George Lucas Building.

To view the calendar of screenings, click here.

Check-In & Reservations

This screening is free of charge and open to the general public. Please bring a photo ID or print out of your reservation confirmation, which will automatically be sent to your e-mail account upon successfully making an RSVP through this website. Doors will open at 6:30 P.M.


The USC School of Cinematic Arts is located at 900 W. 34th St., Los Angeles, CA 90007. Parking passes may be purchased for $8.00 at USC Entrance Gate #5, located at the intersection of W. Jefferson Blvd. & McClintock Avenue. We recommend parking in outdoor Lot M or V, or Parking Structure D, at the far end of 34th Street. Please note that Parking Structure D cannot accommodate tall vehicles such as SUVs. Metered street parking is also available along Jefferson Blvd.

Contact Information

Name: Alessandro Ago
Email: aago@cinema.usc.edu
Phone: 213.740.2330