October 26, 2011 -- This story about a radical domestic terrorist group literally fell into the lap of director Marshall Curry when federal agents walked into his wife's office one day and arrested one of her employees on charges related to arson and other crimes carried out by a group of radical environmentalists called the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, known to some as the Elves.
Curry was able to gain access to that employee, Daniel McGowan, and followed him and his family with a camera crew during the period he was on trial for a variety of so-called “eco-terrorism” charges. The film doesn't cover the trial or the sentencing itself, but rather the events leading up to McGowan's arrest, and his home life while he awaits sentencing. The film is pretty neutral about this subject, presenting McGowan's point of view, along with those of other environmentalists, and people in the timber industry and law enforcement, too.
In another stroke of luck, Curry accidentally crossed paths with another filmmaker about 3,000 miles away in Oregon, Tim Lewis, who contributed some remarkable footage of his own to the film, and also appears on camera to talk about ELF. Lewis had responded to an advertisement by Curry seeking a cameraman to shoot some scenes in Eugene, Oregon. Lewis' footage of a clash between environmental demonstrators and police years before in Eugene is simply amazing. It mirrors the police overreaction to the recent Occupy Oakland incident and other similar clashes.
McGowan and his fellow ELF activists caused millions of dollars of damage to buildings and equipment related to the timber industry. McGowan is mostly unrepentant about that. He explained that traditional protests, petitions and political solutions were not producing the results he wanted, so he decided to go beyond the law to try to force change through the destruction of property. Of course this means that McGowan is not open to the idea that his political agenda is not being advanced because it is the wrong agenda. The only possibility that McGowan seems able to accept, at least during his extreme activist days, is that his political agenda must be advanced by more extreme measures. How far do you take these extreme measures? McGowan said he would not go so far as to physically hurt or kill people (as some anti-abortion extremists do) to further his cause. McGowan said some of his fellow travelers at ELF were open to that possibility, however, and it was discussed. At that point, he said, his ELF cell broke up over that very issue.
Since nobody was physically harmed or killed, McGowan argues that he should not be considered a terrorist. One of the definitions of terrorism is violence for the purpose of advancing a political cause. There is non-violent action, of the type practiced by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, and then there is violent action, where you break things, burn things and destroy things. What McGowan did was to take violent action to advance his political agenda, and that does fit a commonly accepted description (and legal definition) of terrorism. People in the film who operated a timber mill attacked by ELF said they feared for their own lives and property after the attack. That may not have been ELF's goal, but it was an effect of the arson committed by ELF members. Politically-targeted violence which results in that kind of fear is another definition of terrorism.
There is a possibility that certain left-wing filmmakers would portray a guy like McGowan as being a good guy because he has what they consider to be the right opinions and the right motives. This film is more even-handed than that. It does give both sides of the terrorist-or-not-terrorist argument, although some left-wing, or some right-wing critics probably do not see it that way. I suspect though, that if McGowan had been a skinhead burning down churches owned by black people, his justifications for those actions would not have been presented quite as generously by Curry.
Others who appear in the film include some law enforcement investigators involved in the case, including federal prosecutor Kirk Engdall and Eugene and Oregon policemen Greg Harvey and Chuck Tilby. Also interviewed are Steve Swanson, an owner of a timber company in Oregon targeted by ELF. Other ELF members appear in the film, including Jake Ferguson (who wore a wire for the FBI, and got McGowan to incriminate himself on tape) and Suzanne Savoie, McGowan's former girlfriend. The film is a fascinating look inside a little-known arm of the larger environmental movement. This film rates a B.
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