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IF A TREE FALLS is a rare behind-the-curtain look at the Earth Liberation Front, the radical environmental group that the FBI calls America's 'number one domestic terrorist threat.' With unprecedented access and a nuanced point of view, the documentary tells the story of Daniel McGowan, an ELF member who faced life in prison for two multi-million dollar arsons against Oregon timber companies. The film employs McGowan's story to examine larger questions about environmentalism, activism, and terrorism. Written by
What are the criteria for being a terrorist? What should be the criteria for a being a terrorist? Is an environmentalist who burns down the empty office of a logging company in the middle of the night comparable to crimes committed by people like Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden? Is this crime to be put on the same legal shelf as those who fly planes into skyscrapers and kill thousands of people? Ask any three people and you are likely to get three different answers, after all, the people you ask probably aren't the ones going to prison for it.
Marshall Curry's documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front begins by showing us some acts of "eco-terrorism", acts in which radical environmentalists whose peaceful protests have fallen on deaf ears and turned up the heat by setting fires to lumber mills, wild horse corrals, SUV dealerships and meat packing plants. They were called The Earth Liberation Front or E.L.F. unorganized group of radicals willing to cause millions of dollars in property damage in the name of keeping corporate America from destroying the planet. The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is to dismiss these individuals as a bunch of over-zealous ya-hoos who just enjoy watching things burn. Yet, the film is something more, as we watch it, we are taken into the lives of some of the members of the E.L.F. and begin to understand what they are fighting for. That leads to questions of whether or not their legal prosecution is really fair.
The E.L.F. get the attention of, not only their targets, but the F.B.I. who quickly labels the group as "The number one domestic terrorist threat" and launches a full-scale investigation of the individuals involved, an investigation that resembles in many ways the F.B.I.'s investigation of the mafia 50 years ago.
What is interesting is that even while we don't agree with what the E.L.F. is doing, the film gives us images that allow us to understand their point of view. We see footage of trees that have stood for thousands of years, blindly cut down. We see horse mills, with hundreds of dead horses hung from the ceiling. We see the heartbreaking sight of a group of legendary trees sawed down to make a parking lot.
We see the protesters themselves, camped out in the trees that are to be cut down, beaten and maced unmercifully by the local police. In a scene that resembles the riots of the 1960s, we see members of the E.L.F. with their faces covered marching into the streets and then beaten and clubbed. The irony is that the members of the group who are clearly guilty of vandalism haven't done any physical harm to other human beings but are being beaten down by law enforcement as if they were murderers.
Let us make no mistake, what the E.L.F doing is wrong, unlawful and is deserving a punishment by law, and yes, jail time. The point is that this film questions the severity of the extent of that punishment. Curry's film moves very deeply into that very question and wonders about the fate of Daniel McGowen, whose story provides the film's bookends, goes under house arrest in his sister's home until his trial in which it will be decided what kind of jail time he will do for the crime of arson. He seems like a nice kid with a sweet voice, somewhere in his mid-20s who smiles a lot, but has eyes that are much more thoughtful, focused and intelligent than most kids his age. When he goes to trial and receives his sentence, we aren't surprised that it is harsh. What does surprise us is the information that McGowan is now going to spend the rest of his life on the government's terrorist watchdog list. Why? His crime, at best, results in malicious vandalism. Why a life sentence on the same list as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the architect of the 9/11 attacks?
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