As our world grows increasingly homogenized, it gets easier and easier to fall into one way of thinking, accepting conventional "wisdom" and media-perpetrated fallacies that increasingly compartmentalize who we are and how we think. Accepted clichés about different types of people range from the seemingly benign--"All environmental protestors are filthy hippies"--to dangerously jingoistic--"Only people with brown skin can be terrorists." In some cases, these clichés cross over into legal definitions. For instance, "A corporation is a human being." Sadly, corporations are better equipped to deal with an Orwellian quagmire posed by such a radical re-defining of terms; for an actual individual person, it might not be so easy.
For instance, what if you were called a terrorist because of something you did? What does that mean? Did you have to specifically want to harm people, or is terrorism literally an action intended to scare and threaten? This is one of the many questions tackled by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman's documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. Watching the movie, you will be confronted with one man and his misguided attempts to effect social change. Is Daniel McGowan a legitimate terrorist, a freedom fighter, or merely a self-righteous vandal? If a Tree Falls brands him as all three, and which tag sticks is wholly up to you.
As many will remember, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) was a radical environmental group that came to life in the wake of the 1999 WTO showdown in Seattle. As the movie explains, their roots were in legal, non-violent protest mostly centered in Eugene, Oregon, a town most closely associated with the disparate pursuit of alternative lifestyles and logging. After years of seeing law enforcement shut down peaceful protests through violence and intimidation--it's not for nothing that President Bush I christened Portland "Little Beirut"--Daniel McGowan and many others decided that playing by the old rules wasn't working. On January 1, 2001, they upped the ante by setting fire to the offices of a lumber company. McGowan was just a look-out on that excursion, but the next time out, he would end up being one of the guys lighting a match. He left the ELF shortly after.
Why he left the group is also explored in If a Tree Falls. At that time, the outcome of his crimes forced him to question the effectiveness of them, an ethical quandary that came up again after his arrest, along with a number of others, in 2005, nearly four years after he had ceased his fringe activities and joined more mainstream social organizations. As the subtitle of the movie suggests, If a Tree Falls is only one story of the ELF, and Daniel is its focal point. Curry and Cullman interview him, his family and associates, and the investigators who worked the ELF case to get at how an average American became a radicalized activist, his intended goals and their actual outcome, and the fairest, most effective way to deal with someone like Daniel. Again, is the charge of terrorism too much? Some think so, but a federal judge eventually said otherwise.
Curry and Cullman deal with all sides fairly and effectively. Giving airtime to the owners of the businesses that Daniel attacked, for instance, ends up being more than a cursory inclusion to avoid charges of bias. The documentarians are truly fair and balanced, examining all sides of the issue, and letting the facts serve themselves. Daniel is given free rein to present his case, to the good or bad. I felt I came to an understanding of why he did what he did, and he clearly understands that he got caught up in a moment and didn't completely think it through. The film never asks us to like Daniel--and frankly, I don't, possibly because I still have a nagging concern that he never once seemed to stop and say, "Despite my beliefs, this is a crime, and I am willing to accept the consequences for acting on my moral imperative" (granted, possibly splitting hairs in terms of defining personal responsibility)--it just asks us to think about his situation. His ex-girlfriend, who was also part of the ELF and eventually turned state's witness, says it straight up: you don't know what you would do until you are in the same position. Likewise, the lead investigator that closed the net on Daniel notes that the world is too gray for him to judge right or wrong, why or why not, he can only enforce the law of the time.
It's a compelling argument, and an important one for us to consider. Social change has been occurring around the world as of late, and while Americans have applauded people taking to the streets in the Middle East, we should pause to consider how we would react if similar uprisings happened on our own soil. Despite the country's historical origins and continued lip-service to democracy, genuine protest and legitimate modes of disagreement are often vilified and ridiculed. With both the Boston Tea Party and the New Deal being recast and distorted for political gain by the powers that be, and 1960s activism being obfuscated with easy punchlines, progressive thinking and alternate points of view grow more and more marginalized. This is what leads to extremists like the ELF. The only difference between the Algerian insurgency that drove France from its borders and the Weather Underground causing havoc within our own is which side of history they ended up on. It's why a thoughtfully made movie like If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front can be so instructive, helping us know where we, as a people, may be going by showing us where we've been.
A generous helping of bonus materials helps round out the information presented by If a Tree Falls. The longest and perhaps most interesting, surprisingly enough, is the full-length audio commentary by Curry, Cullman, and editor Matthew Hamachek. Their conversation peels back the layers of documentary filmmaking, revealing both their involvement with the subject and the exhaustive task of getting the material needed for a full-length motion picture of this kind. Both Curry and Cullman get into similar territory during a 9-minute question-and-answer session shot in Ashland, Oregon. It makes for nice companion viewing, further rounding out our image of the filmmakers and their intentions.
A collection of deleted scenes and extended interviews reveal more about what some of the participants felt about Daniel's plight and their personal involvement in ELF activities, be it on the inside or the outside, as well as touching on other aspects of the story that didn't quite have a place in the final narrative. Likewise, an 8-minute piece catches us up on where some of the people in the film are now; since it took several years to edit the movie, their lives have carried on. Daniel's prison life is detailed by his wife and sister.
The trailer for If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is included, along with several other releases from Oscilloscope.