In 2005, Daniel McGowen, to the shock of his family and friends, was arrested by the FBI for his involvement in a domestic terrorist organization called the Earth Liberation Front (or ELF). One of his coworkers was so flabbergasted by his arrest, that her husband, Marshall Curry (a director known for the acclaimed documentaries Street Fight and Racing Dreams), made If a Tree Falls. The documentary follows the rise and activities of ELF in the United States and why someone like McGowen, a shy, quiet working-class kid from Brooklyn, was drawn to the group.
Although the development of ELF alone makes the film worth watching, If a Tree Falls also raises questions on the meaning of “terrorist” in a post-9-11 era. McGowen and other ELF members have committed acts of terrorism under the legal definition. However, the term is understood differently in the public sphere. Should McGowen be labeled a terrorist? It is certainly something you will think about days after watching the film. If a Tree Falls was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.