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Activists or Terrorists?

A Q&A with Tim Lewis as he heads for the Oscars

“I got involved in what some people call activism, but I really don’t like that term,” Tim Lewis says. The tall, thin 55-year-old with piercing eyes prefers to simply be called a videographer. Lewis and his video camera have been everywhere when it comes to documenting protests and police wrongdoing in the Northwest — the WTO riots, the Warner Creek Blockade, the pepper spraying of downtown tree-sitters, the Tasering of pesticide protester Ian Van Ornum — Lewis documented all of it. The Tasering incident led to a grand jury subpoena that was later dropped, and the pepper spraying led to the Eugene Police Department being chided by human rights group Amnesty International.

These incidents, as well as some of his wayward ways, have made Lewis not the most popular person with the EPD. But it’s both his videography and his involvement in Eugene’s activist scene that led to Lewis’ appearance in the Oscar-nominated documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. Lewis’ work is much like he is: One minute it’s high-level commentary on social issues, the next minute, it’s raw and a little rough for a general audience.

Lewis documented the almost yearlong Warner Creek blockade, in which activists prevented the Forest Service from logging a forest that had been burned by a deliberately set fire. At one point it was protected from logging, but then the “salvage rider” signed by then-president Bill Clinton opened it up to be clearcut. 

Warner Creek marked the debuts of the careers of several mainstream environmental advocates. It was also where many of those later affiliated with Earth Liberation Front became frustrated with the fight to save the environment and turned to stronger measures, like arson. Daniel McGowan, the subject of If a Tree Falls, went on to become a little of both, but his involvement with ELF actions landed him a terrorist label and seven years in federal prison. 

McGowan and Lewis are not the only appearances of Eugene or Oregon-linked activists in the film — Civil Liberties Defense Center attorney Lauren Regan, Earth First!er Jim Flynn and other familiar figures, including local law enforcement, lend their voices and experiences to the documentary. These appearances allow the film to question why environmental activists who didn’t physically harm anyone are labeled terrorists, while allowing those affected by the arsons to speak as well. 

Tim Lewis sat down with EW before leaving for the Academy Awards.

How did you get involved with the movie?

A friend of mine was actually trying to find me some work. I needed some cash and so he went on Craigslist, looking under video and shit like that, and saw this listing of someone looking for a cameraman to video some court hearings that were happening. 

I sent them an email and I said, “I think I know what you guys are doing and I think you want to get a hold of me because I have some footage you might be interested in.”

We started dialoging, Sam Cullman (co-director/cinematographer) and I, and Marshall Curry (director). Our working relationship started then and has continued these five or six years. 

They had to get my trust the first couple weeks and then they got it because they were very genuine and very real. They became my friends. It’s been a joy to work with them.

How did you actually become part of the film? You were in quite a bit of it.

I was, and that sort of surprised me. They were sort of trying to find the direction I think when they came to Eugene. I was just one of those people that they interviewed. But I guess with my knowledge of the ’90s and of Eugene and having participated in or filmed some of those events, they just felt that my ability to tell that background story was integral to their movie, so they used me.

So, probably off the record, but did they have to edit out a lot of your cursing?

Oh, that doesn’t have to be off the record. I really did try not to curse because Marshall did say that this will be on PBS. I said, “Ok I’ll try my best.”

There were a couple things. I did say “balls,” “fuckers” and “up his ass,” and that was about it (pauses). I think. Yeah, I toned it down for the production. But I think they probably did edit a lot of stuff out. 

How did you get involved in activism, the forest protests and documenting the police?

I don’t like to be called an activist videographer. It started at Warner Creek. I was primarily a video producer and a film producer. I wasn’t an activist; I wasn’t involved with any politics. I knew it was a good story. 

We only thought it would take a week but it lasted a year. I sort of got sucked into it at that point; I didn’t want to be a bystander. I didn’t want to be some reporter objectively reporting.

I Gonzoed, I guess, and dove in to be part of the Warner Creek campaign. I wanted to tell their story. I got to know the people. When the ruling came down, I was in a bar getting drunk and they were going “We gotta go; we’re setting up a blockade and everything. We gotta go up there and you have to come with us — we need a camera.”

 I was like, “No, I have no sleeping bag. I don’t have any clothes.” They got me a sleeping bag and clothes and put me in the beat-up old truck with a canopy over the top they called “The Dolphin” and threw me in the back. And I just laid there going down Franklin Boulevard heading toward Hwy. 58, and I just realized my life had changed forever. I was drunk and going to some place I had no idea where or what kind of people they were going to be. But I just knew it was the kind of adventure that would probably change my life. And it did.

So you weren’t always politically involved? What was your background?

I was always trying to be normal. Growing up I always wanted to be responsible; I always tried to have my own businesses — worked on, videotaped on cruise ships, traveled the world, tried to make hundreds of thousands of dollars, tried to do the American dream.

But I never really gave a shit that much about money, and I never really liked being told what to do by pretty much anybody, and I didn’t know why. I was trying to do all these things the right way. I felt something must be wrong with me but I couldn’t continue to do these kinds of jobs.

But when I did move into the Whiteaker neighborhood in the early ’90s, Icky’s (a now-defunct anarchist tea house) was around and I started hearing “fuck work, fuck jobs and fuck the car culture,” and it was totally new to me. 

Didn’t you mention once something happened with your brother that made you dubious about the cops?

There are different stories on how Roger died when he was 23. The story we were told was that it was malnutrition and a drug overdose in Amsterdam in 1971 or 1972. His body was cremated; we never saw his body.

We knew that he was running drugs from Afghanistan and Morocco; he was a pretty dynamic cat. He used to beat up cops when he was young and was thrown in jail in Cottage Grove and Lane County a few times.

Friends of his would talk to me and said the DEA killed Roger for the drug running. So it was questionable in my mind. He was huge, 6-foot-7, and really intelligent. He was not the kind of guy who was going to die of malnutrition in Amsterdam. He was the black sheep of the family at the time. I was 16 when he died.

I’m fourth generation in Oregon, born in Roseburg, grew up in Eugene, I think we moved here in ’63, when I was like 7 or 8, went to North Eugene High School. Prefontaine was my hero as well as my mom and dad. Five boys and one girl in the family. My dad played semi-pro baseball and was an insurance salesman. My mom was an RN. They were ass-kicking parents. 

My mom died last year in January, while I was at Sundance Film Festival for If A Tree Falls. She died Jan. 24. And Jan. 24 this year was the morning my sister called and said, “Tim, you’re going to Hollywood.” That was an omen; maybe we’re going to kick ass in Hollywood. My mom was definitely excited about the whole Sundance thing. It’s sort of a drag she can’t see what’s going on now, but that’s the way it works. 

How was Sundance?

What I can remember of it! Micah, my running buddy from PictureEugene, our YouTube site — we decided we’d drive the beat-up old Toyota truck there, and just tear it up, and we did. We went for five days, went to four or five showings of If a Tree Falls. It was like a big ego stroke because people would come out and recognize me and go “That’s the dude” and I’d just go “Yeah, that’s me, man.” It was fun. Got a lot of drinks bought for us. Got wasted and did that for five or six days. The truck broke down on the way back.

So are you going to the Oscars?

Yes, it’s a once in a lifetime thing. We’re going down in Micah’s greasemobile. It’s sort of an outside chance we’re going to get into the show, but Marshall Curry said he’d try.

 I want Blair (his daughter) to go down there. As much as I hate Hollywood and what they do in creating memories and creating stories for people instead of people creating their own stories, this is something I can do with Blair and these kids. At least it’s our memories we’re creating. 

Oh, and Blair will say “there was that time my dad was in the Academy Award-nominated film …”

Yeah, and “he was hanging from the balcony and we scooped him up and he almost died!”

What did you think of the film?

Sam Cullman showed me a rough cut at my house about four or five months before it was ready for Sundance. I was disappointed. I felt like it was really weak, and I didn’t realize it was going to be showing so much of Daniel; I thought it would be showing the overall scene. 

So initially I didn’t like it that much, but Marshall and I talked for about three hours and we talked about some of my views. I started to realize that I was too close to it. 

I hear someone talking about burning down a mill and for me it’s not such a huge step. But for someone in Iowa, for someone in middle America, that’s a huge step and it probably intrigues them. For me, it’s just something we talked about back in the day about whether that’s a good tactic or not. 

Daniel, obviously while they were filming him, didn’t know if he would go to prison for life. He played it close to the chest. He didn’t really want to own what they did. And also he’d transitioned into a different period of his life.

I wanted him to own what they did. Because that was a period of time people were trying to make things happen and had the courage to make the next step. It was hard for me to see people backing off from that period of time and not really owning it. Then after I saw it at Sundance and saw a little but more about how this character, this sort of average Joe could go from graduating college in business and go to what’s called sabotaging mills throughout the Northwest, and how that would intrigue people.

Objective reporting to me is just bullshit, frankly, but I think Marshall did it in a pure way, allowing each side to tell their story and letting the viewers decide for themselves. 

You sort of leave the theater thinking, instead of feeling hate for the mill owner or hate for the saboteurs. You’re sort of confused a little bit — most viewers — and I like that. I think that’s maybe the power of it; maybe that’s why it was nominated. 

So one thing that comes up in the film is Daniel waiting being told by Eugene-based federal judge Ann Aiken that he and the other eco-saboteurs were terrorists. What did you think about that?

It’s just so silly these kids, in their 20s, being tagged with this. We all know why — it’s just to put pressure on anybody who’s thinking about doing anything like this, and trying to convince the public who terrorists really are. 

Classifying these kids and this type of thing as terrorism is totally absurd. As Americans, or just average Joes on the street just trying to make it, we all know who the real terrorists are. I mean the big bankers and like they say in the film about the oil spills in the Gulf, these CEOs, they aren’t threatened with life in prison or with any of this stuff. And they are the ones causing this planet to go and just be fucked, for the lack of better term.

You almost have to go and own the motherfucker. If they’re calling us and these kids terrorists then we have to own it. Country folk own “redneck”; gay people own “queer”; black people call themselves “niggers.”

Take it away from the Ann Aikens, and go, “Yeah, fuck you. I am a terrorist.” We know who the real terrorists are, but it’s all part of the system. I think we should own it.

Freedom fighter, that’s almost too poofy. Terrorist sounds a lot better. It’s got a real punch to it. Domestic terrorist. It’s got a nice punch. 

Do you think what Daniel and the others did changed anything?

We need to create change in our own little world, our own little areas, our family, our friends, our land. I try to stay focused on that but also instigate a little here and there. But it also requires good homegrown beer and homegrown pot.

I’m raising Blair and an couple other kids; I like being around kids and their directness. Adults have lost their ability to say what they think. Schools, give me a break they are just prisons. Schools and cell phone use, and videogoames, it’s just child abuse that’s the way I look at it.

I guess what I’ve been trying to do with my daughter is create a sense of place … where she knows that tree or where her dog is buried. When I look out the window and see three dogs, four kids run down a trail and over a creek and up the other side, I know I’m doing something right.

I’m not trying to live with this tunnel vision of these “isms” any more. Politics, radicalism, anarchism, liberalism, Occupyism. Fuck all those isms, man. I mean, I’m not saying fuck ’em. I mean they’re great, but you have to able to look outside that tunnel and live your life.

Did it create change? It created change in people’s individual lives and we still see all sort of ELF actions still going on. As people get poorer and poorer and thrown out of their homes maybe we will see a lot more of this kind of shit. Creating real change. Or at least more prisons. 

I really do like that quote from the movie: “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” I think that’s pretty accurate.