Director: Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman
Films as balanced as Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman's If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front are rare, particularly when they deal with such emotionally and politically charged subject matter. Although the film at first seems as if its sympathies lie with Daniel McGowan and his environmental activist group, as the film progresses the point-of-view gets a bit murkier and more complex. Ultimately this is not a film that advocates for one side or the other, but tells its story from multiple viewpoints, asking important questions and not necessarily taking sides.
If the film can be said to have a protagonist, it's Daniel McGowan, an environmental activist who, in 2007, was sentenced to 7 years in federal prison for charges relating to eco-terrorism. As a member of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), McGowan participated in what the group would probably call intense acts of protest, which from the mid-90s increasingly seemed to mean burning down buildings. McGowan ultimately split from the group when tactical discussions increasingly started to turn towards targetting people, rather than unoccupied buildings, and he returned to New York, where he grew up, to take on lower profile activist causes (lower profile relative to ELF, that is) and put his past with ELF behind him.
By 2005, authorities were beginning to close in. After breaking a former ELF member and convincing him to wear a wire to get confessions from ELF members involved in the arsons, McGowan and others were arrested as domestic terrorists. While many of his co-accused took plea bargains which involved testifying against the others, McGowan refused to go that route and was one of 4 defendants to take a deal which did not require cooperation. As the film reaches its conclusion, a more circumspect McGowan concedes that he may have been naive in his earlier activism and while he still obviously believes in the cause, he also seems to have regrets about his actions in support of that cause.
If A Tree Falls tries to be as unbiased as possible as it unfolds this story, its interest more in raising important questions than casting "heroes" and "villains." It understands the motivations of environmentalists and early in the film provides an example of why a group like ELF would feel pushed to take violent action. In that example a peaceful protest takes place with respect to some heritage trees that are scheduled to be cut down to make room for a parking lot. The city agrees to a public forum but secretly makes plans to take down the trees the day before the forum is to take place. It's easy to understand why, after something like that, activists would come to the conclusion that peaceful protests are of no use. When the government takes underhanded action that undermines the democratic process, why should activists play by the rules? On the other hand, the film also shows how quickly things can spiral out of control when a group decides that it no longer has to function within the confines of the law.
When activism escalates to arson, the acts are justified with assurances that members of ELF made sure that no one would be inside the buildings they were burning down. There's a lot of discussion in the film regarding the definition of terrorism. McGowan argues that he isn't one because his actions never caused physical injury, only property damage. He also states, however, that the purpose of the arsons was to intimidate the government and big businesses into curtailing their destruction of the environment. To argue both of these positions is to ignore the fact that terrorism isn't solely about the death count; it's also about using the threat of violence to attempt to force someone to do what you want. In that sense it seems certain that ELF meets the criteria for being an organization of domestic terrorism.
There are no simple solutions in If A Tree Falls. It feels a degree of sympathy for McGowan who, in many respects, is a good man but one whose idealism got him into a situation beyond his control. At the same time, however, it doesn't excuse him for what he did and doesn't pretend that arson is a noble act of protest. In at least two cases, buildings that were burned down were targetted based on false information. Left unspoken in the film is what seems, to me at least, to be the biggest contradiction of the situation: ELF feels that the government, logging companies, real estate developers, etc. are negatively impacting the environment. In response they burn a bunch of shit including, in one case, a bunch of SUVs drenched in gasoline. Did they never stop to think that torching 30 SUVs was going to have a negative environmental impact? Seems a little counterproductive.
Whatever your stance on environmental issues, I think that If A Tree Falls is a rewarding film experience. It offers an evenhanded view of a complex issue/series of issues and is completely engrossing from beginning to end.