Daniel McGowan at Full Frame

Postcard sent to Daniel McGowan in prison by director Michael Moore. At screenings, McGowan’s supporters distributed the cards, which happened to also be promotional material for the show “True Blood.” Read into that, as you will.

What’s probably most striking about meeting Daniel McGowan — a man who was labeled an “eco-terrorist” by the government, served six years in prison, and is the subject of the POV Oscar-nominated film If A Tree Falls (POV 2011) — is his sense of humor. This weekend he stood up in front of an audience after a screening of the film — the first screening he’s attended since it came out in the middle of his prison sentence — and imitated his draconian prosecutors as if they were like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers.

What a gem the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival provided audiences, and hopefully McGowan, when it hosted the screening as part of its tribute to director Marshall Curry. McGowan had seen the film about seven times before, but only once with a large group of people, and this was the first time in a movie theater with an audience. He wept at the end of the screening, and admitted to being “wrecked” during the Q&A that followed. McGowan, who lives in Brooklyn and continues to work for social justice, has a low-key charm, and said that being at the festival was “the most exciting thing” that’s happened in his life recently.

After the Q&A, I sat down with McGowan who said that it took him about four months after getting out of prison to watch the film. Not surprisingly, it was “emotionally hard to watch” and he felt “gutted,” especially by the scene when he turned himself in to authorities. He called the movie “very good” and appreciates what Curry achieved, but he’s also measured in his assessment. “It’s a story. It’s Marshall’s telling of the story,” he says. “And a film is not an exact retelling.”

What I didn’t expect was that McGowan didn’t find solace during the release of film while he was in confinement. If anything, it was a “bummer,” he says, because he “was out of the game. I was missing out. I wanted to be there while it was happening.”

Instead, he followed its progress by reading news clips and Oscar coverage like in Entertainment Weekly. He did enjoy the notes of support he received during the film’s run in theaters, including ones from director Michael Moore, writer Naomi Klein and then there was the one from Beastie Boy Adam Yauch — McGowan is a big Beasties fan — the latter of whom distributed the film through his Oscilloscope film company.

It was moving to be there with McGowan, and Full Frame gets credit for making it happen. You have to respect a guy who can crack about “the clowns who worked at the jail,” and made his life miserable, and then also to hear him drop wisdom like, “Victories are temporary and defeats are permanent,” when discussing progressive politics.

With the help of the film, he said in the Q&A, hopefully “history will treat us more kindly than the prosecutors did.” I think McGowan got a taste of that when he was heartily applauded by the Full Frame audience.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen