Directed by Marshall Curry & Sam Cullman
Just the other day the Academy Award released it “shortlist” of documentary films which were still in the running for the award this year. Much to my dismay The Interrupters, one of my favorite films of the year so far, documentary or otherwise, was left off the list. But I was sure there were some good films on that list so I searched Netflix to see what was available and what was not. I found this film, which I had not heard of, so I sat down to watch it, not knowing what to expect. It seemed like an interesting enough premise, but truthfully I am not sure my heart was ever fully in it, but the delivery and mindset of the subject of the film certainly did not help out much.
Daniel McGowan is just a normal guy, except he is on trial for two life sentences for setting more than one fire, which resulted in multi-million dollar damage to a few northwestern timber companies. Daniel’s defense is that no lives were harmed in the fires and he and his accomplices knew that going into the arson, therefore his acts were justified in his environmentalist eyes. You see, Daniel belongs to the organization which calls themselves the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, a group centered in the Northwest which protests the logging industry and other various environmental issues. The film explores the brief history of the organization, the crimes attributed to it, and the role Daniel played in bringing it to prominence.
I personally have never heard of the ELF before this film, but that is not to say that they were not an influential and notable group in their time, which is chronicled as the early to mid 2000s, and perhaps operating predominantly in the Pacific Northwest limited my exposure. They are said to be one of the most dangerous domestic terrorists groups in the United States, which creates an interesting dichotomy given their mission. Despite being, well, treehuggers essentially, they are also violent and aggressive in their views and actions. I care about the environment, though I do not recycle and take as much care as maybe I could, but these are extremists. After trying the civil disobedience card and failing to see results, some of the more determined members decided to turn to property destruction to send their message.
One of the big issues raised by the film is the definition of a terrorist. These ELF members are branded by the United States government as terrorists, a label that they find to be ridiculous, which conversely I find to be ridiculous. The argument presented is that Al Queda and Timothy McVay are terrorists. The ELF are merely social freedom fighters. This is absurd, you are comparing the definition of a terrorist to the most extreme examples? Arson is a crime, and while you claim you knew there were no loves at stake, there were personal pocketbooks at stake. Sure you might impact the big wigs and ruin the company, but what about the little guys that are out of work? There just seems to be a failure to see the bigger picture. It’s easy to say “Oh, it’s just arson, no big deal.” The issue is obviously bigger than that, but the way it was presented angered me, and certainly did not make me pull for Daniel and the other environmentalists.
And now my personal viewpoints have come into play, which is to be expected when it comes to documentaries. I am not sure what the intents were of the filmmakers here. If they were on the side of the environmentalist, then they fail in their presentation, but if they are unbiased journalists, as they should be, or in fact against the ELF, then they present a nice antithesis to the objectives of the group, painting them in this somewhat blinded and extremely biased extremist group whose only answer to what they see as injustice is further injustice. The saying goes that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. As far as the filmmaking goes, If a Tree Falls is a fair documentary, presenting the controversial topic in a fairly compelling manner. The fact that it engaged me and got a reaction out me like it did says something. But the fact remains that it angered me, so perhaps it won’t go down as one of my favorites of the year.