Tuesday, February 7, 2012

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front Movie Review

Daniel McGowan’s t-shirt showing a picture of George W. Bush with the caption “International Terrorist” just about sums up the way he encounters the world. That he chose to wear that shirt while a documentary film crew was interviewing him during his house arrest prior to receiving a criminal sentence indicates that knowing what a shorthand signal it is, he wants the audience to know just how far to the left he stands from the political fence. I’m going to make a bold guess in saying that how you respond to the message on his shirt will be a fairly accurate litmus test for your opinion of the environmental warriors that are the subject of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.


As it turns out, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) is an environmental activist group that was responsible for several acts of sabotage and arson perpetrated against lumber mills and corporate offices of companies deemed by the group to be engaged in inexcusable practices. No deaths have ever been attributed to their fires, but they have caused extensive property damage. I knew little to nothing about this group before seeing the documentary. To the extent that I now feel like I have a strong base knowledge of their philosophy, motivations and activities, the film is successful. I give strong accolades to directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman who have made one of the few documentaries in recent memory that seems to honestly present as objective a viewpoint as possible. I believe anyone can come into this film and take away the facts that led to McGowan’s conviction. Staunch environmentalists are likely to be angered by this film as much as the more right-leaning capitalists who see deforestation as a necessary part of modern life and who, you know, think that arson is a crime that should be punished.

Helicopter shots of forest-covered mountains dotted by enormous clearings; freight trains loaded with freshly milled lumber; the sight of gigantic and majestic trees being cut down will either anger the environmentalist in you or have you shrug your shoulders. Curry and Cullman don’t dress it up with editorializing, emotional music or Indians shedding tears. They do, however, give time to wood cutters who explain that it would make no sense from a business perspective to cut down all the trees and that Federal law actually dictates that for every tree they cut down they are required to plant five more.

The film chronicles McGowan’s early involvement with first environmental awareness, then activism followed by his rise to criminal accomplice and the inevitable transition to criminal arsonist. Curry and Cullman give equal time not only to McGowan and his sister, who remarks that it is sometimes difficult to understand his politics especially when he recycled the paper labels from her unopened cans, and to former confederates from his days in the Pacific Northwest staging protests and setting fires, but also to federal agents involved in the investigation into ELF’s practices.

The most incredible thing about the ELF is how secretive they managed to keep everything. Initially, investigators couldn’t get any information about them. They kept their communications off the Web. They used a system involving books and a code to identify page, line and word numbers to piece together messages. Most importantly of all was a solemn vow to never turn on your brothers-in-arms so to speak, a promise that was ultimately not upheld. At the end of the day these people are not hardened criminals who know from a young age that they may end up rotting in prison. They are basically peace-loving hippies who, when faced with the prospect of long prison sentences, suddenly wake up to reality and decide that life is better on the outside even if it means turning on someone. McGowan and some others left the movement when some of the crazier among its members started predictably talking about moving from property destruction to exacting some kind of human toll.

One of the most controversial issues brought to light in the documentary is McGowan’s official status as a domestic terrorist. Because of new regulations in place after 9/11, he and his activist criminal friends were branded as terrorists and subject to harsher prison sentences to be carried out in special detention centers. McGowan, his family and his former confederates strike me as a bit delusional when they insist that he doesn’t fit the definition because a terrorist is someone who seeks to hurt or kill people. They’re actually completely wrong about the goal of terrorism and if the film has a minor drawback, it’s that Cullman and Curry never get any government official or terrorism expert on camera to explain what terrorism really is. That is, it’s designed to instill fear and terror in a group of people, usually for politically motivated reasons. It so happens that killing lots of people is often an effective way of quickly accomplishing that goal. To the filmmakers’ credit, they do include a scene of lumber mill owner-manager talking about the paranoia and nightmares he experienced after his offices were burned. The goal of the ELF was clearly, unequivocally, and without doubt to scare people into changing their practices. In spite of McGowan and friends’ insisting that he is not al Qaeda, that is precisely what al Qaeda and their ilk are doing, albeit with a higher body count.

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