Tuesday, 21 February 2012
If a Tree Falls...
By Alan Bacchus
I have to admit, I groaned at the thought of watching another heroic activist film. Yet, Marshall Curry's story of the Earth Liberation Front, the so-called 'eco-terrorist' group that aggressively pushed their agenda of saving the planet with hardcore violent radicalism in the late ‘90s/'00s, is a deceptive film, which, at a glance, would purport to aggrandize the organization. But as it gradually reveals a non-partisan approach, both championing the cause and revealing the ironies and fallacies of their idealism, the film exposes more fascinating complexities than most issue-driven films.
For Curry, Daniel McGowan is the face of the organization. He’s an environmental activist responsible for two acts of arson, which has him up for a life sentence in prison. But based on his middle-class appearance, he certainly doesn't fit the mold of a left-wing extremist. As Daniel awaits his trial under house arrest, the camera acts as his confession booth through which we learn about the E.L.F., including Daniel's involvement and the events that led to his arrest.
We learn of the environmental movement in general and their non-violent activities and protests, such as the WTO protests in Seattle where many others from his organization, in the name of the cause, were subject to brutal policing tactics. But when Daniel meets the men and women involved in the E.L.F., who in one swift stroke can physically erase the cause of environmental destruction, the non-violent tactics look grossly ineffective in comparison. Over the course of a few years in the early 2000s Daniel becomes involved in a number of arsons, deemed by the authorities to be domestic terrorism.
But at one point, upon witnessing the grief of the owner of a lumber company after touring the carcass of his charred building, Daniel has a change of heart and gets out of the organization. Here's where Curry admirably switches viewpoints, telling the story from the side of the authorities set on taking down Daniel and his cohorts.
It's a refreshingly pragmatic approach to a traditionally partisan subject, something that tarnished films like The Cove and The Corporation, proving there's value in showing both sides of a story. Curry effectively humanizes the investigators, the FBI and even the cops videotaped beating protestors in Seattle. The drive to find the perpetrators thus becomes as involving as the E.L.F.'s fight against corruptors of the environment.
And Daniel's downfall comes from a sad, tragic irony squeezed out of the movement – betrayed and sold out from within by the same extremists who accused corporations of selling out the earth for a buck. It not only makes for a fascinating twist in the story, but in the bigger picture it forces us all to confront and put a price on our own convictions.
The final act question posits whether Daniel should be considered a terrorist. Curry is clear with his opinion that Daniel is not, something I personally disagree with. Yet, it doesn't harm my enjoyment of the film.
If a Tree Falls... is deservedly up for an Oscar for Best Documentary. Please watch this film and challenge yourself to answer some of the questions posed to Daniel and the other participants involved.