When activists burn with anger
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Aug 12, 2011
If a tree falls in a forest, it may or may not make a sound. But if a tree is cut down, the Earth Liberation Front will almost certainly be there to raise a ruckus. That much is clear from "If a Tree Falls," which looks at the story of environmentalist Daniel McGowan as he faces a life prison sentence for a couple of arsons in which he had a hand in 2001 while working with other ELF activists.
While Marshall Curry's documentary is clearly sympathetic to its central character, it gains credence from its well-rounded approach to the story of both McGowan and the history of the ELF. The audience gets the perspectives of prosecutors, police officers - even loggers - in addition to the environmentalists who once resorted to destroying property to prove their point.
The film begins with McGowan under house arrest at his sister's New York apartment as he awaits trial. Sedate and pensive while washing and drying plastic bags for reuse, he is hardly the picture of an "eco-terrorist," a designation he calls "hideous." While there's no question he had a part in the arsons, the story is more nuanced than meets the eye.
Curry does an impressive job of weaving together McGowan's unlikely trajectory - he was the son of a New York City cop, was a high school cross-country star and a business major - and the history of the ELF. That group represented a nationwide set of cells that emerged after peaceful acts of civil disobedience were met with police in riot gear shooting rubber bullets and dousing demonstrating tree-sitters with pepper spray. What started out as "monkey-wrenching" (putting sugar in bulldozer gas tanks, for example) ultimately devolved into more extreme measures of economic sabotage. And the fact that those actions became classified as "terrorism" in a post-9/11 world doesn't do the perpetrators any favors when it comes to sentencing.
Archival footage of demonstrations, news clips and the Seattle World Trade Organization debacle of 1999 blend seamlessly with interviews with those involved on both sides of the debate. In an inspired move, dramatizations of the arsons are told through striking black-and-white animations with voice-overs from the ELF members responsible for the blazes.
While Curry takes a fairly evenhanded approach to the subject matter, there's one issue that feels conspicuously unaddressed. The ELF blazes destroyed structures without taking any human lives, but it's hard to ignore how easily someone might have been seriously harmed. If a lumber company employee had made an unexpected late-night trip to the office, or the fire hadn't been so quickly contained, people might have died.
That omission aside, Curry tells a compelling tale about the differences of opinion over what constitutes desperate measures, and how readily we throw around a term like terrorism.
Contains strong language and some disturbing images of interactions between rioters and police.