If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Synopsis: For years, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF)—operating in separate anonymous cells without any central leadership—had launched arsons against dozens of businesses they accused of destroying the environment: timber companies, SUV dealerships etc. In December 2005, member Daniel McGowan was arrested by Federal agents in a nationwide sweep of radical environmentalists involved with the ELF.
Oscar-nominated doco finds middle ground in eco-terrorism debate.
Director Marshall Curry’s and Sam Cullman’s If a Tree Falls tackles broader socio-political developments in modern American law and, with profound empathy, one individual’s persecution in a post-9/11 America.
Framed within a history lesson chronicling the formation of the ‘enviro-terrorist’ group The Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the Oscar-nominated filmmakers juggle numerous issues and angles and display a deft hand at splicing together a) archived news footage of ELF missions, b) shifts in the constitutional rights of lawmakers to pursue those engaging in perceived terrorists activities, and c) the house arrest and ultimate incarceration of Daniel McGowan, a mid-level contributor in ELF’s protests nearly a decade ago.
Curry and Cullman track down several key radicals that initiated some of the group’s more daring initiatives; the worst among their ‘no-compromise’ actions included arson attacks on logging company headquarters, a wild-horse slaughterhouse, a car dealership and a multi-million dollar ski resort. Under Bush-era domestic terrorism rulings, the covert planning and construction of incendiary devices qualified the ELF as the nation’s largest in-country threat and the full force of Assistant U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdall’s office was (retrospectively) unleashed.
The tone of the film’s first half plays to ELF sympathisers and may frustrate those looking for an objective précis of the events. To the directors’ credit, though, they redress the balance in the compelling final act, foregoing political activism to concentrate on McGowan’s final days before he begins his stint in jail. As the immensity of his predicament dawns on him, McGowan’s cocky personality recedes and, faced with the unforeseen consequences of actions he engaged in a long time ago, the young man transforms before the lens. The intimate scenes of McGowan’s final evenings with his family are very moving.
What most impresses about If a Tree Falls is the sly way in which the film’s focus shifts, often from scene-to-scene, and demands that the audience follows suit. Some patrons familiar with the ELF will be on the side of eco-conservation, but few could endorse the extreme acts of the group’s militant leadership (most escaped long sentences). Curry and Cullman seek debate as to whether the group’s actions are terrorist in nature and whether the laws are being manipulated to further political careers, but they present key G-men not as redneck logging-industry puppets but as decent men with empathetic views just doing their jobs.
The even-handedness of the film caters to the dual viewpoints of those who would seek to feel their blood boil over the issue, whether they be the ‘greenies’ incensed by the exploitation of nature or the ‘throw the book at them!’ conservatives supportive of commercial interests. As emotive and far-reaching as the issues involved are, this incisive feature is most potent when capturing Daniel McGowan’s life and mind dismantling. The human cost of opposing agendas resonates deeply.
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