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Jennifer De Lucia
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
A Surprisingly Well-Balanced Study of Social Activism
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 exception.
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
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