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If A Tree Falls: A Story From The Earth Liberation Front - Movie Review - 2011

What is Terrorism?

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User Rating 3 Star Rating (1 Review)


In presenting the story of Daniel McGowan, the former Earth Liberation Front (ELF) environmental activist who's been sentenced to life imprisonment for environmental terrorism or, more specifically, for arson committed against northwest US lumber companies and national parks, filmmakers Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman raise questions and stir public debate about the definition of terrorism, especially in the post-9/11 security environment.

Change of Heart and Tactics

McGowan, an idealistic and naive Long Island youth who'd traveled to the northwest to become active in the environmental movement, became increasingly radicalized as he saw that peaceful protests were not effective, and that peaceful demonstrations were met with violence from authorities. Eventually, McGowan and other members of the ELF fire bombed lumber company headquarters and national park property. Although nobody was hurt in the explosions, the blasts caused millions of dollars in property damage.

Curry and Cullman use dramatic archival footage not only of the fires caused by ELF, but also of the shocking misconduct of Eugene, Oregon police when they broke up a peaceful demonstration staged by citizens protesting the cutting down of a landmark tree. The police used clubs, tear gas and pepper spray to disband the demonstrators, including those who had positioned themselves in the branches of the tree that was to be cut down. The police behavior is horrendous, and the footage might well serve as a primer of how authorities should NOT deal with civil disobedience.

Curry and Cullman show that McGowan, although he admits to extreme acts of arson, is a kind of an everyman -- someone who wishes to do well and improve society, becomes disenchanted, disenfranchized and turns to the use of distructive tactics instead of peaceful ones to effect change.

One of the most interesting aspects of McGowan's character is his refusal to testify against other former ELF members, although they're testifying against him in order to lighten their own punishments. McGowan faces life in jail, and betrayal by former ELF comrads, but he remains true to his personal ideals. This character trait makes him quite sympathetic, and the debate around his situation becomes all the more serious.

More Than McGowan

There is, of course, the question of whether destruction of property -- actually, empty buildings were burned down -- warrants a life sentence. The prosecution and court obviously think so, but you're provoked to give serious consideration to this question, and that really makes you grapple with the issue of defining terrorism. It's a very worthwhile and legitimate challenge. Kudos to Curry and Cullman for expanding this very compelling story about a little known chapter in the environmental movement to raise questions about how social protest should be staged, how terrorism should be defined and how civil disobedience should be handled by authorities.

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Film Details:

  • Title: If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
  • Directors: Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
  • Release Date: June 22, 2011
  • Running Time: 85 mins.
  • Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
  • Locations: Eugene and Seattle, Oregon, New York City and other US locations.
  • Language: English
  • Production Country: USA
  • Distribution Company: Oscilloscope Pictures
  • Official Website
  • Trailer
User Reviews

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 3 out of 5
From the sublime to the paralysis, Member Peterkinoy

If A Tree Walls is an ambitious film that comes on strong, but ultimately leads to an unfortunately discouraging place. If we look at the film structurally it takes us through the story of ELF (Environmental Liberation Front) as the outgrowth the justifiable frustation and anger over terrible environmental crimes and the inability of non-violent protest to stop them. It raises the fascinating question about the role of property destruction as a tactic in the attempt to stop the environmental destruction, a question that is much more relevant than the question of ""should this be called terrorism."" Up to this point the film is brilliant, and the scenes of pepper spraying of the environmental protesters, and rubbing some agents in their eyes are really chilling and precsient in light of the UC Davis attack and its wide spread outrage. But then the film narrows its scope and become almost a police procedural, tracking the investigation and arrest and the eventual trial of the protagonist. The key questions raised in the first half of the film are not returned to, and the film becomes a personal dilemma piece on whether our hero should turn states evidence. But even this would be fine if the filmmaker took a little more concern and position and analysis about the main political concerns that they started out discussing, mainly - how do we, as concerned citizens, make change? How do we stand up to seemingly unstoppable evil? In the end I am reminded of the sentiment from Woody Guthrie, that optimistic folk hero who said ""I hate a song that makes you feel like nothing, that you can't do anything."" I guess that is how I feel about a film, too. I want it to at least point a way, or at least leave the door open for the viewer to walk through toward a better future. If not, what are we to do? Unfortunately the message at the end of the film is not a message of hope to the outraged citizens of this country, but rather a depressing take home lesson; don't mess with the FBI. They will always get their man, and they stopped ELF and they will be able to stop you. I believe that this is a short sited view, and one that does not do justice to the way in which social movements grow and develop.

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