If a Tree Falls

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If a Tree Falls
Promotional poster for If a Tree Falls
Directed byMarshall Curry
Written byMarshall Curry
Matthew Hamacheck
Produced byMarshall Curry
Sam Cullman
CinematographySam Cullman
Edited byMatthew Hamacheck Marshall Curry
Music byJames Baxter
The National
Distributed byOscilloscope Laboratories
Release dates
  • January 21, 2011 (2011-01-21) (Sundance)
  • June 22, 2011 (2011-06-22) (United States)
Running time
85 minutes

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is a 2011 American documentary film by filmmaker Marshall Curry. It tells the story of activist Daniel G. McGowan of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), from his first arson attacks in 1996 to his 2005 arrest by the Department of Justice. The film also examines the ethics of the ELF at large and how terrorism is to be defined.[1]

Premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, If a Tree Falls was rapidly acclaimed by critics as many considered it one of the best documentaries of 2011 for its thought-provoking portrayal of complex environmental and political issues. It won a number of awards and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.[2]


Daniel McGowan first became involved with the ELF in 1996.

The Department of Justice launched Operation Backfire to find the arsonists.

In 2006, McGowan was arrested.

Signing a plea agreement, he was sentenced to 7 years in prison.[3]


Director Marshall Curry knew Daniel McGowan through his wife's work.[4] McGowan did not strike him as the terrorist type, so after his 2006 arrest, he was intrigued to find out what led him to his radical course of action.


If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Documentary Editing. Oscilloscope Laboratories would subsequently pick it up for theatrical distribution.

PBS broadcast the film on September 13, 2011, as part of its POV series.[5]


If a Tree Falls has an approval rating of 88% on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 32 reviews, and an average rating of 7.01/10.[6] It also has a score of 65 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 14 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[7]

Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times called it "one of the best documentaries of the year"[8] and the New York Times said it was "an extraordinary documentary... [a] fearless exploration of complexity in a world drawn to oversimplified depictions of events and problems, heroes and villains."[9]

The various organizations involved—including the spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front and the prosecutor who put members of the E.L.F. in prison—also responded favorably.[4]


  • Academy Award, Best Documentary Feature (nominee)[10]
  • Sundance Film Festival, Best Documentary Editing (winner)[11]
  • Dallas Film Festival, Environmental Visions Award (winner)[12]
  • Miami International Film Festival, Knight Dox Competition Grand Jury Prize (nominee)
  • Miami Film Festival, Knight Dox Competition Special Mention (winner)
  • Nashville Film Festival, Best Documentary (winner)[13]
  • Traverse City Film Festival, Founders Award for Best Documentary (winner)
  • Santa Cruz Film Festival, Earthvision Environmental Jury Prize (winner)[14]
  • Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival, Best Feature (winner)
  • Best Documentary Screenplay from the Writers Guild of America (nominee)[15]


  1. ^ 'If A Tree Falls': The Earth Liberation Front's Rise: NPR
  2. ^ Undefeated Wins Documentary Feature; 2012 Oscars
  3. ^ 'If a Tree Falls', Documentary on Earth Liberation Front - The New York Times
  4. ^ a b "If a Tree Falls-Press Notes" (PDF). ifatreefallsfilm.com. 2012-11-13.
  5. ^ If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front - Documentary Trailer - POV 2011 | PBS on YouTube
  6. ^ Rotten Tomatoes
  7. ^ Metacritic
  8. ^ Turan, Kenneth (21 July 2011). "Kenneth Turan's film picks: 'If a Tree Falls,' 'Honeymoon Killers'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  9. ^ Revkin, Andrew (13 December 2011). "If a Tree Falls, Can it Win an Oscar?". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  10. ^ "The 84th Academy Awards 2012". Oscars.org. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  11. ^ "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front". Sundance Institute. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  12. ^ "2011 DALLAS International Film Festival Announces Award Winners". Vimooz. 9 April 2011. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  13. ^ Smith, Nigel M. (20 April 2011). ""Weekend" & "If a Tree Falls" Win Big in Nashville". Indiewire. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  14. ^ "Santa Cruz Film Festival Awards". Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce. Archived from the original on 18 May 2015. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  15. ^ "Writers Guild Awards: Complete Winners List". hollywoodreporter.com. The Hollywood Reporter. 19 February 2012. Retrieved 18 February 2019.

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