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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?
For a long time I've wondered if radical groups like the ELF are
crucial to the causes they support because their tactics bring
much-needed attention to the causes, or if they are detrimental because
their tactics turn off many people who'd normally be sympathetic to
their causes. This film reinforces for me that the answer is "yes" and
"yes" -- i.e., "it depends" ... on the cause, on the specific tactics,
and ultimately on personal points of view.
IF A TREE FALLS added an interesting angle for me in this notion of the positive/negative net effect of radicalism. I had never thought about the impact of law enforcement's treatment of the radical groups -- i.e., do their tactics (brutal in many cases toward environmental protesters) help or hinder THEIR cause? As I watched the film, I wondered if there were disagreements about tactics/approaches within law enforcement akin to the disagreements within the ELF and the broader environmental activist community.
And that's what makes this film so strong and effective. It prompts you to ask a lot of questions. IF A TREE FALLS does it in a way that is character driven. The broader story unfolds through the stories of individuals who were involved. The result is that you (the audience) get involved!
I highly recommend the film. And like me, you may want to revisit THE THIN BLUE LINE and FIGHT CLUB after you see IF A TREE FALLS.
I saw this film this July at the Traverse City Film Festival. Actually,
I was dragged there by my daughter (who is much more of an activist
concerning environmental issues than am I.) I generally avoid
environmental documentaries because many times they paint a very black
and white view of the issues. This film is an engrossing and gratifying
The film follows former Earth Liberation Front (ELF) activist Daniel McGowan from his arrest by the FBI as an "environmental terrorist" through his legal efforts to avoid a life sentence. Even though his actions only resulted in destruction of property without loss of life or even physical harm to living creatures, the government was determined to make an example of Daniel and a few others of the formerly close-knit group. For many years they had no leads in ELF's membership and the crimes (destroying -- primarily by arson -- ranger stations and businesses that they considered destructive to the environment). They only cracked the case 5 years after the organization had disbanded by treating it as a "cold case." At that time, the FBI serendipitously uncovered information which led to the identification of one of the more hard-core and less altruistic members of the group who then turned informant on the rest of the members, which resulted in his doing no jail time at all while his fellow conspirators faced life sentences. Unfair, but not uncommon in our system of "justice."
Daniel McGowan is a city-raised young man from New York who became infatuated with environmental activists, participating in their peaceful and legal protests. Upon seeing the foolish and counterproductive hard-nosed repression of those protests by government and police agencies, he decided to throw his lot in with others in ELF and resorted to property damage to make corporations and the government "feel the pain" of their policies.
Here is where the documentary becomes wonderfully balanced, allowing the pursuing government agencies their frustrations and those property owners who had been attacked to voice the disruption and anxiety that ELF caused in their life. At times, ELF acted on faulty information which resulted in businesses being attacked who were completely innocent of the policies ELF felt were destructive to the earth.
Daniel himself comes off as idealistic and frustrated, but often misguided and gullible. As his life progresses, he becomes wiser about some of his decisions and regretful of the destruction in which he participated and how the consequences of that destruction was often (but not always) negative to the environmental movement. However, after his arrest he would not testify against his fellow ELF members (one of the few) and therefore received some of the harshest punishment. One can find some sympathy for him, especially with the idea that he was equated in the justice system with terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh or the 9/11 terrorists, although he never physically harmed any living being.
But the prosecutors are also portrayed in a generally positive light, with one saying at the end of the film (to paraphrase) that he was old enough to understand that not everything is black and white... that life is much more complicated than that. He said that once he understood where Daniel came from and why he believed as he did, he could understand why he might make the decisions he did, wrong-headed as they were. Such enlightenment being shown by our government officials is somewhat unusual.
The co-directer, Sam Cullman, who held a Q&A after the screening at Traverse City, said this is "A" story of ELF, and not "The" story, and I think that is well-stated. The organization probably has many stories as each member had his or her own motivations.
The larger question remains... if faced with a resistant and unresponsive establishment, how is change effected? This film adds to that discussion in a balanced and educational, but compelling way, making it one of the best docs about tactics used by social and environmental movements. 9/10
What do you do if you feel something terrible is happening, and the cause of that terrible thing is systematic? - that is, the systems for governing our world offer no possibility of change, because they themselves are part of the problem. Either you accept the system, or you fight it - and if your methods include violence, you thereby become a terrorist, and (in a sense) an enemy of those who chose to work within the system instead. The Earth Liberation Front were a group of ecological activists who took to arson; and whose members eventually wound up in gaol. This film allows them to present their case, and interestingly, they come over as intelligent and thoughtful and not in the least wild or woolly in their thinking. To its credit, the film also interviews some of their targets and those responsible for their prosecution, who are not demonised and who also come over as human. The only thing I struggled with was the insistence of front members that they weren't terrorists. I rather think they were - but this thought-provoking documentary raises the question of whether being a terrorist is always wrong, and doesn't offer easy answers in either direction.
One mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter is and old tired
cliché but in this film that quote seems yet again to ring true.
This doc explains why a group of environmentalists started to radicalize when they felt that corporations, police and politicians no longer listen to them.
Their solution? Firebombing various facilities that according to them(later they found that some of their targets really didn't support harm to the environment, but actually the opposite)was posing a threat to the environment.
This solution was extreme, and got the FBIs attention who started investigating their attacks. Slowly but surely FBI was closing the net but biggest question remained, was this domestic terrorism?
And should it be viewed as domestic terrorism?
For a viewer, like me, who never been involved in radical political organizations this film poses a lot of interesting questions, such as how far are you willing to go for your ideals? And also how easy is it to push idealistic youngsters to commit worse crimes then just illegal demonstrations, vandalism etc?
It should be seen by anyone interested in why, how, people regardless of political views easily can be persuaded to commit crimes in order to get their agenda, message, across.
So if you liked docs like Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army (2004), The Weather Underground (2002),One Day in September (1999)etc then you should see this one.
I've seen this trend in documentary films, particularly in American
ones: the story of a social movement or something wrong going on is
told from the point of view of an affected individual, more often than
not delivering not only information but a sentimental message, trying
to make you emphatize with that particular individual. For me, that's a
When a cause is wrapped up around a single person and becomes a personal issue rather than an universal fight, the whole thing sinks down under just "a" story. Thus my summary comment: "the" story would have been better, without the whole sentimental filling.
Now, I ordered the DVD expecting to get more information about the ELF and related issues. I certainly did, although I had to cope with a lot of those sentimental fillers. Don't get my wrong, I do think that seeing what happens to someone involved with the ELF is educational, although there's no need to go that deep into Daniel's own life. You get involved knowing the repercussions, I'm sure people supporting the ELF emphatize with Daniel McGowan, and detractors will say "that's what he deserves". Then, again, why going so much into Daniel's private life details, not directly involving the ELF or environmental issues but rather trying to show his defects? For those wanting to get involved in the environmental movement, that may only scare them away. OK, some (if not all) of the stuff will simply anger these people, which in return will create, perhaps, an action. From my European point of view (and environmental activist, as well), I don't see the sentimental lines fitting anywhere. Alright, I'll stop repeating myself now. As I was saying, you will find useful information here (I discovered, among other things, the rare film "PiackAxe"). I didn't watch the extras yet, but I hope I will find even more nice information here -without fillers-.
I believe the film also try to portrait ELF people like "humans too" by showing their mistakes and weakness'. Hm, about that, let's just say that activists should take it as a what-not-to-do list rather than a pointing finger. I still don't see any so-called mistakes there, even though I do see how messed up is to betray your comrades for money or other selfish reasons (being able to walk free hand by hand with your child is more valuable than fighting against the total destruction of our natural world, right? If your child doesn't have air to breathe in the future but the one sold by the same corporations that destroyed the planet, you will be long gone by then, so who cares...).
Summarizing, worth watching, even with its flaws. If just for the informative value. If you can focus on what really is important, you will find the destruction mankind bring for greed. And, hopefully, will do something about it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This documentary covers a lot of territory while following the
compelling story of a man whose youthful conversion to activism lands
him in the US torture prison grid branded a terrorist.
This film has much to say about authority, youth, environmental activism, environmental destruction for profit, and finally, about a country using the war on foreign terrorists as a pretext to practice terror on its own citizens through the use of ridiculously aggressive sentencing and detention practices.
We are asked to question if the cost of ELF destruction compares to the destruction of oil, gas, timber and mining companies across the USA, to say nothing of what the US war machine does abroad. The FBI is represented by a thorough but ultimately sad apologist agent who eventually admits to feeling 'circumspect' about jailing dedicated, idealistic young American citizens to isolation gulags.
The automated, unthinking flip-side of authority is shown in the grinning face of a local cop from Eugene who's been on the front line of protests and is convinced of his righteousness in just doing his job. Yet another officer redeems himself saying he prefers to prosecute crimes, not terrorist acts.
For a documentary, many characters take form. We see the faces of authority in various forms of dedication, moral contortion and ignorance. We see the fragile morality of youth, with us knowing its collision with cynical reality is just around the corner (thanks to an excellent job of revealing events in the editing). We also see the glory of people battling a system of exploitation on its own terms, and finally, a corrupt justice system willing to exert more harsh terror on its highest moral watch-guards than on polluters, arms dealers and war criminals.
The actions of ELF are eventually tied into the WTO protests in Seattle, and the larger movement that was taking shape before 911. The film only nominally mentions what was ELF's biggest selling tool at the time, that it always claimed to have no center, and proposed the notion that each person should be their own activist. The similarities to other activist organizations in this regard was perhaps too similar to promote.
Regardless, the film is incredibly dramatic in scope for a documentary, encapsulating the 90s and 00s in the USA, and the transition US democracy has taken forwards and/or backwards in that time. The conflicts it explores, mainly freedom vs security, are as old as civilization, but the canvas is as large as ever.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"You can't repair the health of the planet when those who continue to
destroy it still make the rules and decisions. The rich won't just give
away their money and property, and tyrants won't just lay down their
arms and let fall the reins of power." Michael Hardt
"If you are looking to change the rules, why start by abiding by them? You have to start from the premise that fairness can't be 'resumed' because it was never there in the first place. In conditions where everything is stacked against the majority, 'playing fair' amounts to accepting a position of disadvantage. In fighting for fairness, one doesn't have to 'play fair'." - Mark Fisher
An interesting documentary by Marshall Curry, "If a Tree Falls" delves into the life, arrest and trial of Daniel McGowan, a member of the Earth Liberation Front. In 2011, the film was nominated for a Best Documentary Academy Award.
Curry's film peers into McGowan's childhood and attempts to examine the motivations of those who populate the ELF, a group which many dub an "eco terrorist organisation". Like most who resort to violence the ELF sets fire to various businesses and corporations McGowan and his compatriots see themselves as "freedom fighters" who have been "forced" into using guerrilla tactics. For the ELF, official channels are futile, power is too entrenched and the status quo blocks all reform.
"Tree's" second half interviews land owners, the police and the Department of Justice, all of whom succeed in getting ELF members categorised as "terrorists". Such a label allows the US government to aim its various multi-billion dollar anti-terrorist wings at the group. As a result, the ELF now lays low. An offshoot of the British Earth First! movement, it was at the height of its power in the 1990s and early 2000s. Its ideology stressed anti-authoritarian anarchism, environmentalism, an anti-capitalist stance and a commitment to a collective defence of the Earth. It took the form of a transnational, decentralised network of clandestine, autonomous cells, with each cell's broader operational knowledge derived from books and lectures disseminated by mainstream environmentalists. "Our earth is being murdered by greed, corporate and personal interests," one of the group's press releases would state. "The rape of the Earth puts everyone's life at risk. There are over 6 billion people on this planet of which almost a third are either starving or living in poverty. The time has come to decide what is more important: the planet and the health of its population or the profits of those who destroy it and us. We are but the symptoms of a corrupt society on the brink of ecological collapse."
Today, many dismiss the ELF as nutty radicals (the term "radical" comes from the Latin word "radicalis", meaning "to get to the root of a problem"), yet even the Pentagon and US military now annually publish detailed reports fretting about the dangers of climate change. Mainstream environmental groups likewise ceaselessly moan about the dangerous acidification of the earth's oceans, the daily extinction of species and so forth. This is what author and philosopher Rob Nixon calls a "slow violence", referring to the attritional lethality, or cumulative effect, of many environmental crises (climate change, toxic drift, ocean PH levels, 95 percent of US forests being cleared, heat rises due to exponential rising global energy requirements, deforestation, oil spills, the leaking of arsenic, lead, selenium, mercury etc). All of this is ignored.
Meanwhile, the Law frets about the illegality of the ELF. But the criminal justice systems in capitalist liberal democracies have always been less about justice and more about shifting attention away from social problems (whilst shunting blame upon the working classes). It's no surprise, then, that the ELF rejects the false moralism that defines the acceptability of actions by their acceptability to Power. Indeed, throughout history, breaking the law has been straightforwardly just and reasonable. Likewise, throughout history, upholding the law has often represented an acceptance of systemic injustice and violence. The hungry do not need to justify their efforts to feed themselves. The dispossessed or landless do not need to explain their attempts to house themselves. The brutalised do not need to seek permission to stop brutality. Their efforts are not radical. Radicalism is a Power that denies its own extremism, violence and disorder - the violence of inequality, dispossession, the destruction of traditional or indigenous communities and the extermination of people, ecosystems and species. These are real extremist behaviours, and they are endemic to a system in which destruction for profit is seen as a "rational" act. Yet Power never identifies this as being radical. Instead, such things are always presented as a fact of life, a cost of doing business, a side effect of necessary progress, an unfortunate outcome of history (with no one responsible).
And so when Daniel McGowan takes down a factory it's a crime against private property. Meanwhile, every year, over two hundred thousand Americas die young to air pollution, 14 billion pounds of garbage are dumped into the ocean, over 1 million seabirds and 100,000 sea mammals are killed by pollution, over 3 million kids die from environmental factors, the Mississippi River carries an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico (creating a "dead zone" the size of New Jersey), 40 percent of US lakes, rivers and estuaries are too polluted for fishing, aquatic life, or swimming and the US produces an estimated 30% of the world's waste (and uses 25% of the world's resources whilst dumping 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, storm-water, and industrial waste into its own waters). All of this, and more, is deemed, not extreme, but pretty mundane.
8/10 - Worth one viewing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In 2005, former Earth Liberation Front (ELF) member Daniel McGowan is
arrested, along with a dozen others, in a co-ordinated operation to
bring to justice those responsible for a series of arson attacks over
the previous decade. McGowan is implicated for his role in a number of
these attacks, and faces a double life sentence if he continues to
refuse to take a plea (and, in doing so, turn on his former comrades).
Under house arrest in his sister's New York apartment, McGowan invites
Marshall Curry in to document the period up to his imprisonment.
The ELF are not an easy organization to categorize; formed seemingly out of the believed futility of peaceful and non-violent demonstration to protect the 'raping' of the environment, they use economic warfare (in the form of property destruction) to make their points instead. McGowan, a late-comer to the organization but one who quickly uses his charm and passion for the cause to rise through the ranks, does not deny any of the charges laid before him. Rather, Curry is granted insider accounts from not merely the arrestee but also a number of his co-conspirators (even, most notably, the snitch who gave McGowan and his accomplices up in the years after the arson attacks).
Curry's film is not a propaganda film for McGowan, or even the ELF; it doesn't throw statistics at you regarding the extent of logging or the dangers of genetically-modified food (two of the organization's targets for attacks). Rather, it serves to establish a landscape more complex than the simplistic 'eco-terrorist' slur used to describe McGowan et al, without necessarily demanding sympathy for their bleak position and future.
The ELF's case is nevertheless made strongly: in all the EDF's actions - and they number over 1200 incidents - not a single human casualty results, and the targets are invariably large organizations and corporations. The eco-warrior McGowan is at pains to stress their actions as mere 'property destruction', and it is hard to argue otherwise - particularly with the poignant NY backdrop - yet Curry is even-handed enough to also interview the workers and families of those whose workplaces have been destroyed. To them, the destruction of property is not a means to an end (however noble), but a misunderstanding of what it is they do. An Oregonian logging executive, whose offices were targeted by the ELF in 2001, is therefore equally convincing in arguing that by definition, he is also an 'environmentalist' - for every tree his business cuts down, six have to be planted, and further, if there were no trees left, there would be no logging business either.
The points raised on both sides are relevant and thought-provoking; it is patently clear no- one is out to do serious harm, either to the environment or to the workers, yet both sides remain at loggerheads over whose supposed 'crime' is worse. And while the battle goes on, everyone continues to suffer. There is clearly a middle-way between the tree-hugging environmentalism of the ELF and the business-savvy but ecologically-dependent corporations and businesses they target, but why hasn't it been found?
Concluding Thought: MacGowan may well not be a 'terrorist' in the sense of a suicide bomber seeking maximum casualties, but the arson attacks are undoubtedly intended to instill a degree of fear to encourage desired political action. That is still terrorism.
Great documentary showing the people who are willing to fight back against the corporations that are not only willing to destroy and pillage mother nature for profit but are happy to do so. Do I agree with their tactics? No, but am I happy there is now a new extreme fighting back against the other extreme? Yes. For too long corporations have done what they please without caring for anything but the money lining their pockets. This documentary shows the people who where willing to stand up and say enough is enough. Peaceful protests just fell on deaf ears and ended with pepper spray to the eyes and testicles. These guys had enough, they knew for a fact that their protests where not going to change anything so they had to turn it up notch. Corporations would not listen to their cries and simply didn't care so ELF decided to hit them in the only place they care about, their pockets. This documentary follows the story of one of these protesters who decided to fight back and stand up for what he thought was right. Should these people be considered terrorists? No, they should be considered arsonists. If the government defines these people as terrorists then what name should be given to the corporations who drove these people to take these actions? Again I do not condone the actions of these people but they are the lesser of two evils in this situation.
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