Posted 22 July 2011, by Robert Horton, HeraldNet (The Daily Herald), herald.net
A new documentary, “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front,” presents a reasonable treatment of fanaticism. Adherents of the Front are sometimes called “eco-terrorists” for their tendency to burn down buildings belonging to people they disagree with.
Note the term “A Story” rather than “The Story.” ELF is a series of cells connected loosely or not at all; this film focuses on one such unit, and thus can’t be said to be about the whole of the Earth Liberation Front.
As he explains in the movie, filmmaker Marshall Curry got into the subject when an unremarkable co-worker at his wife’s office was arrested out of the blue. Turns out this young man, Daniel McGowan, had been involved in violent ELF activities in the Pacific Northwest years before.
McGowan is interviewed for the movie, and he comes across as indeed unremarkable; it’s easy to picture him as the kind of not-fully formed young person who fills his life with the excitement of being fanatical about something.
For McGowan, and some of the other ELF people interviewed, that issue was the destruction of the environment.
He was arrested for a pair of arsons against lumber companies in Oregon in 2001. In describing the particulars of the case, Curry talks to as many sides as he can: the folks whose property got torched, other ELF members and the investigative team that doggedly pursued McGowan and the other conspirators for years.
The story of the detective work, especially the way the Feds “turned” an ELF participant and got him to inform on his comrades, has all the makings of a procedural thriller.
Briefly mentioned is the arson that burned down the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture, also in 2001. In that case, not only did ELF engage in millions of dollars of property destruction, they also got their facts wrong (among other things, the center was actually researching ways of protecting endangered plants).
Curry’s film remains studiously neutral, but it does a good job of raising interesting subjects. One central point, which becomes more prominent as the movie goes along, concerns the stricter terrorism laws passed in the U.S. after Sept. 11, 2001.
Such laws have resulted in unusually stringent consequences, which are being applied in the case of the ELF people, because their politically oriented violence has been classified as terrorism. Perhaps the punishment fits the crime in this case, but the debate is worth having.
“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”
A neutral introduction to a provocative subject: an account of a group of environmentally minded ELF adherents, arrested for arson against Oregon lumber companies. The movie explores the roots of the fanaticism and also tracks the investigation that found the conspirators.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter