If Judge Paul Pritchard fell over in the woods, would anyone care?
The Number One Domestic Terrorist Threat To The United States.
Filmmaker Marshall Curry's If A Tree Falls, a look at the history of the environmental group, the Earth Liberation Front, achieves something that is consistent with all great documentaries: it takes a subject you may not particularly know much about (or even care for), and makes it both interesting and thought provoking. Centered around former ELF activist Daniel McGowan, who at the beginning of the documentary is under house arrest and facing the prospect of life imprisonment, If A Tree Falls reveals how the movement drew Daniel into its number, and how he rose to notoriety as he became radicalized in his views and actions.
Curry does well to ensure his film isn't overly one-sided in its representation of the ELF and its actions, despite some quite frankly shocking stories and images. Beginning with one of the ELF's early demonstrations, which saw an almost hippie-like peaceful form of protest being their main tactic, we see (through footage taken at the time) how the authorities would use what one might call a heavy handed approach to dealing with them. An attempt to stop the expansion of a corporation's car park, which would result in the cutting down of a pair of trees, sees police in riot gear pepper spraying tree dwelling protesters in the rectum. Even more shocking is a sequence where local police officers repeatedly spray peaceful protesters indiscriminately in the face with pepper spray to break up a sit in. As these images play out, activists and eyewitness accounts of the events reveal how the actions of the authorities were directly responsible for the more aggressive steps taken by the ELF, steps that would see the group being classified as the Number One domestic terrorist threat to the United States.
Deciding that peaceful protests and angry letters were getting them nowhere, the group radicalized themselves and began a series of orchestrated arson attacks of logging firms, or any large businesses they felt were responsible for destroying the planet. It doesn't stop there; we are also shown scenes of what appear to be nothing more than wanton vandalism that only serves to undermine the groups' cause. It's interesting to note how this more violent approach effectively split the ELF, with the more extremist members causing the moderates to leave, disgusted and appalled at this new direction.
Curry's film utilizes video footage taken at various ELF protests and news reports to relive the events to good effect. What really drives this documentary, and ensures it resonates with the viewer, is the personal angle it is able to deliver thanks to Daniel McGowan's candid account of his time with the group. The cost of his radicalization is seen to have had a massive impact on Daniel's home life. Following his arrest—which came after he had left the group to reassess his involvement—Daniel is placed under house arrest while he waits for his day in court. Pressured to aid the authorities by providing evidence against other members of the ELF, Daniel must decide whether to stand by his actions, or risk a life behind bars. It is clear that Daniel's family, and perhaps even his partner, do not necessarily share his beliefs, but when he is faced with life imprisonment, a very real human drama begins to play out as his loved ones come together to support him. There's a refreshing honesty to those interviewed, whichever side of the argument they are on. Having spent the majority of the film listening to them state the reasons for their own actions, it comes as a welcome surprise when acknowledgements are made that in most cases they actually empathize with the very people they have been fighting.
As the film is made up from various video sources, there is an inconsistency in the quality of the picture, but for the most part it is sharp, with good levels of detail and natural colors. The 5.1 soundtrack, which features contributions from rock band The National, features crisp vocals, in a nicely balanced mix.
Kicking of the extras is a commentary track, provided by director Marshall Curry, co-director and cinematographer Sam Cullman, and editor Matthew Hamachek. The track offers a good technical insight into the making of the film, with discussions detailing how footage was sourced and integrated into the feature. They also provide a little more detail on their subjects. The deleted scenes included could, in all honesty, easily have been kept in the film, but appear to have been removed in an effort to maintain a tight runtime, and to not overstate the points being made. The extended interviews also seem to have been removed solely to keep the film more concise. Also included is a Q&A session with the filmmakers, following a screening of the film in Oregon. This acts as a perfect companion to the main feature, and allows Curry and Cullman to discuss their work with a receptive audience.
There are no firm conclusions drawn at the end of If A Tree Falls. As one of the agents tasked with bringing the ELF down points out, this is not a black-and white issue. Instead, Curry provides the evidence and arguments of both sides, and allows the viewer to make his or her own mind up. For example: Is a group who have not injured or killed anyone really terrorists? This is for the individual to decide; the actions of the authorities, not to mention the ELF's own change of direction, certainly provide food for thought.
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