Tuesday, January 31, 2012

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011)

We're all familiar with the age-old adage that begins "If a tree falls...".  It sets up a paradox that two sides can argue about for days on end with no inevitable resolution.  In If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman document the story of a man's passion and the dilemma he was left with as a result of his pursuing it.  Our job, as viewers, is to heed all the information this 2012 Academy Award Documentary Feature Nominee offers, discuss and argue among each other and, as you may have guessed, only ever dream of reaching a solid conclusion.

If a Tree Falls focuses laregely on the story of now 36-year old Daniel McGowan.  McGowan, as we are introduced to him is a born and raised New Yorker, a college graduate, and a married man  He seems perfectly poised and well-spoken as he goes about and discusses his daily life in his Manhattan apartment.  Soon enough, however, we learn this is where all his life transpires.  McGowan is under house arrest after pleading guilty to a federal court on multiple counts of arson and conspiracy.  He was an active and key member of the US government-labeled domestic terrorist organization Earth Liberation Front (ELF) when these crimes were comitted.

To set the scene and familiarize viewers who might be completely ignorant to terms like "ecodefense" and "monkeywrenching" (myself included prior the screening), Curry and Cullman point the camera at activist filmmaker Tim Lewis. We are told the story of Warner Creek (located in the Willamette National Forest near Eugene, Oregon) when in 1995 after a timber sale, loggers met a loosely organized blockade of environtmental activists.  This rugged group made up of mostly hippyish youth was not ready to see what Lewis describes as "one of the most beautiful places [he's] ever been" chopped down.  The protest delayed loggers, a wooden barrier was even erected, but in the end the Nation Forest Service Law Enforcement cleared them out and the loggers were able to go about their business.  In hindsight, it would be this incident that laid the groundwork for future stands, though the methods and their intensity would surely evolve.

Daniel McGowan
Cue Jake Ferguson, an "outlaw" environemntal activist who as Lewis puts it "was tired of the talk".  In early 1997, Ferguson took part in the burning down of Oakridge Ranger Station which in turn lead to a rift in environmentalism protesters nationwide.  Ferguson had established a new order of extremists, separated from those who aligned with mainstream environmentalism by their willingness to resort to harsher means. Not long after in July of 1997, a row of trees were to be cleared to make room for a parking lot in the heart of Eugene.  Protesters rallied, and many climbed up the trees refusing to vacate them even as authorities arrived on scene.  Violence ensued, the trees were eventually demolished and about two years later Daniel McGowan showed up in the Pacific Northwest to join the cause.

The film does a good job following the rise of environmental protests in the Northwest while also directing attention to the police response.  Though the majority of anecdotes are those given by former activists, convicted ELF members and bystanders like Tim Lewis, there is plenty of screentime devoted to the interviews of Kirk Engdall, Asst. US Attorney and Greg Harvey, Police Detective, who were both based out of Eugene during the conflagration.  Through their impressively open accounts we are given extraordinary insight as to the thinking and counter-strategy that went on behind government doors during the region's uprise. 

After the gruesome and climactic World Trade Organization protest in Seattle in 1999, Daniel McGowan and other members of the ELF decided it was time for exacting retaliation.  On the night of January 1, 2001 McGowan and others set the offices of Superior Lumber company on fire.  In May 21, 2001 they did the same to Jefferson Poplar Farms and offices of University of Washington.  It was for his participation in the planning and execution of these crimes that Daniel McGowan would later come to be known as an "environmental terrorist".

Throughout the documentary, Curry and Cullman do a great job of humanizing their interviewees.  With McGowan we are presented with his wedding footage (while under house arrest), plenty of family members' interviews and, perhaps most stirring, a number of retrospective sequences where McGowan himself second guesses his past decisions.  With Engdall, we witness a moving revelation toward the end of the film where he admits having a much broader, more ambivalent view of the movement now than he did at the time.  We meet the logging company executives themselves and learn of their genuine (judge this aspect for yourself) who-would-want-to hurt-us astonishment to the crimes committed against them (one memborable line plays to the tune of "after all, we plant six trees for every one we knock down").  It would be farcical to state that there is no partiality expressed by the filmmakers in their work,  but at the same time one should walk away from the film impressed by the strenuous effort they have made to minimize that very downfall by offering so many opposing views.  At one point we even follow a self-described environmentalist discuss his philosophy, examine chopped trees in a decimated clearing, and oh yes, take pride in his career as a logger.

The conclusion of the film focuses on the most controversial aspect of Daniel McGowan's case, his official label as a terrorist.  Curry and Cullman have us peer into the legal logistics of just what that means and what kind of indelible significance it holds in the sentence.  The point in time at which the filming was done really lends itself to some fascinating moments here.  We are able to look on as clips show McGowan leaving the court upon receiving his sentence by a federal judge.  Without dropping a potential - albeit historical - spoiler, we learn what comes of the "terrorism enhancement" the prosecutors sought to apply to McGowan's sentence and the touch further on the ongoing debate of its application.

Does a group who took extra-cautious measures to ensure that no living thing was harmed (which is essentially the very ideal they fight for) deserve to have its members labeled right along side those of known murderous institutions like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban?  But what about a group whose members conspire and take it upon themselves to burn down law-abiding citizens' private property, while hundreds of thousands with the same gripe manage to funnel their outrage into non-violent protest and civil disobedience?  Thanks to the sensational work that went into If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front you will be more prepared to speculate, yet to come out thinking you have that answer for certain is on par with claiming sentience of a falling tree's sound, when no one is around to hear it.

~ Review by Mike Dorfman

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