Theatrical Review: IF A TREE FALLS

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
June 21st, 2011

Rating: 2.5/5

Writers: Matthew Hamachek, Marshall Curry
Directors: Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman

In IF A TREE FALLS, directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman promise to take viewers inside the world of the Earth Liberation Front, the radical environmentalist group that the FBI has deemed the country’s "number one domestic terrorism threat." The film is well put together from a mix of new interviews, fresh footage, archival tapes, news broadcasts, and sketchy animation. It also shifts between two converging stories: the “present” experience of Daniel McGowan, a former member of the ELF who is on trial for two acts of arson he committed as part of the group, and the “past” of what ultimately became the ELF. With these two sections, Curry and Cullman attempt to cast some light on the notoriously underground ELF, but the film never hits a nerve, even when it’s got a basis that seems ripe for audience engagement.

It’s not necessarily essential for documentaries to come with a built-in hero, but it’s much harder to feel engaged in such a film when everyone presented on-screen comes off as a jackass or a sociopath. The ELFers, for all their mighty aims, may in fact be the most maddening of all. The film shows the precision that went into some of their biggest “actions” – from some of their own internal video calls to service and their well-researched bomb-building manuals – but it soon becomes apparent that same precision was not applied to some of the most important elements of their plans. Namely, two of their biggest acts of arson were carried out against questionable targets – a tree farm that was not actually guilty of genetically modifying trees and a laboratory in a university that was such a small target that setting fire to it all but guaranteed that, oops!, that fire would spread to other sections in the building. Like a library. Like another laboratory working on improving urban living. Even people who are sympathetic to the aims of the ELF will have to wonder just who thought this was a good plan. Surely, there are no actions that won’t result in negative effects against someone who is ostensibly innocent (even bombing out a Hummer dealership doesn’t come with the assurance that a hard-working regular Joe won’t ultimately lose a place of employment), but these big, highly coordinated acts just look sloppy – and sloppy so often means dangerous.

McGowan himself could be a sympathetic character – the film attempts show viewers how he has changed in life in the intervening years, but it’s never truly involving and, worse than that, it doesn’t even ring true. McGowan pulled up his Oregon stakes to move back to the New York City, where he dedicated his time to the love of a good woman and a number of jobs that help make the world a better place, but he never comes across as repentant. McGowan didn’t run from Oregon because he was done with his work there, he ran because he didn’t think he would get caught. And, for years and years, he didn’t. Is it a positive experience to see McGowan preparing himself for a sentence that could send him to jail for hundreds of years? No. But it’s also not a positive experience listening to him say on wire-taps that he thinks he and his cohorts are in the clear from their crimes just because no one has come after them yet.

The authorities don’t come out looking any better. As we learn about the origins of the ELF, we also learn that one of the tipping points for those who took more extreme actions was the inability for them to work inside the system. From a Forest Service that evicted protesters by destroying their work, to local cops who cut down trees with protesters in them, even to other authorities who pried open the eyes of non-violent ELFers to pepper spray them, a badge and a gun don’t mean a whole hell of a lot when it comes to character in IF A TREE FALLS.

But it’s the problems with the actions of the ELF itself that are most stinging. The film spends a good portion of its last third arguing about whether or not McGowan and his ilk are truly “terrorists.” A basic definition of the word holds that terrorism is “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” The ELFers believe that their criminal acts were justified – and that they were not terrorist acts because they only harmed property. But there’s a fundamental flaw in their logic – if these are “just” acts of property damage, something that doesn’t “harm” anyone, then why commit them? The ELF sees these actions as their big guns, but then they retract their importance as they argue for how they should be interpreted. If you want big change, use big actions – don’t lie about them. Is arson violent and intimating? If you’re the lumber company next door to the one that was just incinerated, or the tree farm down the road from one that was just blown up, I’d say yes. Are they terrorists? I still don’t know. And neither does IF A TREE FALLS.

While IF A TREE FALLS does provide a look at the origins of the ELF and its impact on members who have long since broken away from the group, but there is scarce little about the film that feels particularly “inside.” It brings to mind a similar documentary – BETTER THIS WORLD, which played at this year’s SXSW Film Festival – which chronicled the after-effects on two young men who were involvement with their own radical political group. But, unlike IF A TREE FALLS, that film was engaging and much more personal – even when presented with the mistakes and missteps of its main subjects, it was both relatable and vital. IF A TREE FALLS is certainly thought-provoking, but it never cuts close enough to feel even a sliver of that same relatability or vitality.

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