I had the privilege of seeing the 2012 Oscar-nominated feature documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011) at the 2012 RVA Environmental Film Festival. I classify my viewing experience as a privilege not because If a Tree Falls was the most fascinating and engaging film I have ever witnessed. (Do not misread me. I feel that it fully deserves its Academy Award nomination.) No, it was a privilege to see a well done documentary played on a widescreen in a theatre. I rarely have such an opportunity. So many documentaries are so quickly put on the internet that seeing them displayed on the widescreen is as rare as seeing a red wolf in the wild. Well, not quite that rare.
If a Tree Falls did a wonderful job of using the noun article “a” in its subtitle, A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. Directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman did not attempt to tell “the” story of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an environmental organization that, depending upon your allegiances and politics, was either devoted, radical, terrorist, or a combination of those. And in not attempting to tell “the” story, they ended up telling much more interesting stories and letting their documentary weave its way into territory well beyond the environmental concerns of the ELF.
Curry and Cullman’s film does give background on the ELF, particularly its roots in and around Eugene, OR. However, this narrative plays around the outskirts of the main narrative: the story of Daniel McGowan. McGowan grew up in New York, NY, and, after college, eventually found himself in Oregon, deeply involved in the environmental activism of the 1990s. If a Tree Falls begins with McGowan, post-arrest, awaiting trial for eco-terrorism. It shows a person who appears harmless and modest, hardly a threat to anyone or anything. Part of the film’s powerful storytelling is its ability to dig back into the past to show how this current version of McGowan could have possibly perpetrated “terrorist” activities.
McGowan’s alliance with the ELF seems natural and organic rather than insidious. He started off doing normal activist activities, became more and more involved, and, eventually, became intertwined with individuals who saw property destruction as the only means to a justifiable end. As he tells his story, we are directed to feel that his motivations, as well as the motivations of the wider movement, were well-intentioned. (Some individuals within the movement are portrayed more villainously. We are supposed to contrast McGowan to these nefarious people.)
And while we do receive valuable and interesting information on how the ELF started and operated, Curry and Cullman move away from providing a true examination of the environmental movement and debates around the environment to more existential questions about activism and terrorism. One of the more powerful moments of the film occurred when activists described how the burning down of a slaughter-house did more to curb environmental and animal rights abuses than years of letter writing, organizing, and protesting. One of the reasons that McGowan and others take violent action against property (never people-a distinction the film always emphasizes) is that they saw a futility to lawful activism. It never seemed to accomplish anything. Municipalities, logging companies, and horse slaughter-houses were never once moved to curb or stop their practices by any of this lawful activism and organizing. Yet the fiery destruction of buildings and property could halt or slow down those entities.
As the film progressed, one gets the sense that Curry and Cullman do not want to have their film viewed as a defense of McGowan even though it is. They do interview the individuals who were directly affected by the actions of McGowan, and they are allowed to speak about the fires and destruction to their property. In each instance, those individuals seem like people who in no way deserved what had happened to them and their businesses. We sympathize with them, and this is where Curry and Cullman are most manipulative (and I do not mean that pejoratively). We sympathize with the victims, who are allowed to speak, but when they speak, they are not the traumatized victims of 9/11 or some other brutal terrorist activity that spurs people to avenge horrible murders. Instead, they are the victims of a crime: arson and property damage, which makes McGowan and his co-actors arsonists and criminals, not terrorists.
Curry and Cullman also interview the FBI officials in charge of the case. Their narratives provide wonderful tension, which is highlighted by Curry and Cullman’s film making. The visual descriptions of the arson attacks and quest to catch the perpetrators are taught and tense. Again, though, the officials never describe McGowan and the rest as terrorists. They do not seem to regard him with dread or loathing. McGowan and his associates are criminals, and the law enforcement officials, in their professional roles, are tasked with catching them.
By the end of the documentary, the film becomes more about the ethical (non)justification of McGowan’s prosecution and sentencing. Neither McGowan nor the directors excuse his actions, but they all seem to take umbrage with how the federal government insists on taxonomizing him and his crime as “terrorist.” The FBI and law enforcement officials interviewed had a difficult time asserting that McGowan was a terrorist. In the end, we are left with the impression that McGowan was sentenced as a “terrorist” so that the government could put a “successful terror prosecution” notch on its bedpost. Even if one believes that McGowan’s actions deserve harsh punishment, it is hard to watch If a Tree Falls and honestly believe that U.S. citizens are safer with McGowan locked away in a high security prison designed for dangerous terrorists. After a plea deal, McGowan was sentenced to seven years in 2007.