If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011)
84th Academy Awards 2012
Nominated for 1 award.
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature (Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman).
Watched February 18, 2013.
If a Tree Falls is a very light handed documentary film. It doesn’t preach, but instead does its job. It documents and uses the interviews and stories from others to tell a story. From someone who is not an environmentalist (as much as I love nature and would love to keep it around), I found this very effective in keeping me interested and keeping my bias out of my final opinion of the film.
The film follows one main character–Daniel McGowan–who got caught up in the ELF in the 90s after seeing a film documenting the efforts of environmentalists in Eugene, Oregon, where the police were being particularly unforgiving. The ELF is an extremist group known to the United States government as the number one domestic terrorist threat. When it began, it was more tame. Normal protests were not being acknowledged, except maybe with tear gas and pepper spray. The ELF decided to take things into their own hands, although they said their interests were the preservation of all life and most of the instances in the film were against companies and organizations that were jeopardizing the lives of trees, etc.
When marches, protests, and petty vandalization were still not being heard, they stepped it up and began utilizing arson. In one instance, Daniel was only a lookout, and in another he helped set fire to a tree farm. They destroyed millions of dollars in property, including a multi-million dollar lodge in Colorado. Once Daniel realized that they still weren’t being heard, he stepped away from the ELF, but years later was brought in by the FBI. His sister put up everything she had to bail him out and he was put on house arrest.
The biggest underlying tone of the documentary is whether or not Daniel and his cohorts should be considered terrorists. After the events of 9/11, the term “terrorist” took on a drastic meaning–one who seeks out and kills innocents. The US government, on the other hand, sees terrorists differently. Daniel and his lawyer fought against it so that Daniel would not get 300 to life in prison and be labeled a terrorist for the rest of his days.
There are brief moments of genuine emotion that make the film painful. Daniel’s sister and his wife are in tears over what he is going through, and the prospect of saying goodbye to him. The other environmentalists, some whom were involved in ELF, and a documentary filmmaker who was not, are also very emotionally passionate about their beliefs. They are genuine and honest about their actions, all saying that they were not the wisest decisions. However, they wish there was a way they could get through to people and stop deforestation.
I thought this would be an excellent documentary to show on television. It was well done and tells quite the story. It was not the most astounding work or caft, but perhaps I have this opinion because I am less fond of the interview style documentaries. That being said, I thought the execution held up, and was glad that it was both about the ELF and about Daniel’s personal struggles against the label of terrorist. If you have a taste for documentaries, this is one that I would recommend.