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


It’s hard not to be fascinated by If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. Imagine coming to work on a seemingly normal day and then seeing the quiet guy down the hall get arrested by the feds on terrorism charges. That’s what happened to the wife of filmmaker Marshall Curry, who decided to turn his lens on this man and tell his story.

There’s this really interesting subtext throughout the film regarding what a terrorist really is. Should someone who burned down a few buildings face life plus 300 years in prison? Or does the label have more to do with one’s set of beliefs, the reasons behind his or her actions, and not the results of these actions? The film frames this philosophical debate around the aforementioned quiet guy (or the “disgruntled one” as some of his “terrorist” friends called him). And it’s a puzzler. I still don’t know how I feel about Daniel McGowan’s beliefs and crimes, but I loved his story and found it monumentally compelling.

For a time, the Earth Liberation Front (or ELF) was considered the largest homegrown terrorist organization in America. Its motto: Protect all life on Earth. Its method: Set fire to companies they consider threats to the environment. Yes, it’s extreme, and the former members interviewed for the film will be the first admit it. But as their story shows, traditional forms of non-violent protesting is toothless in situations like this, and when one feels powerless, the easiest way to grab some power is to make your enemies pay attention. That’s what the ELF did in the 90s, and that’s why Daniel McGowan and his friends went to prison.

The filmmakers stay pretty much hands-off here, which is very much appreciated. They interview several federal officials, as well as businessmen who lost property at the hands of McGowan and company, to make sure it’s a two-sided affair. Really, the entire ELF saga has a ton of gray area, so there’s really no need to preach, and they don’t.

There’s not much of a stylistic identity going on here, which I guess is OK, but the film loses points for its very obvious and distracting music cues. Beyond that, however, there’s little to object to. It’s just a very interesting story told well, and it has a ton of subtext for you to chew on—from the terrorist question to Daniel’s arguably foolish decision to get married to the crazy ironic twist that leads to his eventual arrest. This is an exceptional doc, and coupled with Under Fire: Journalists in Combat and Bill Cunningham New York, it’s part of a very strong shortlist for this year’s Oscar.

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