Friday, February 17, 2012

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

Release Date: 2011
Distribution Company: Marshall Curry Productions
Directors: Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
Run time: 85 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD and Watch Instantly, Currently available to watch free online at:
Recommendation: Yes, a thought-provoking film
Rotten Tomato Rating: 88%

With the Academy Awards coming up, I decided to try and watch this years nominees for Best documentary.  There are only two available on DVD so far.  "If a Tree Falls" is the second one I watched, after "Hell and Back Again."

This examines the case of Daniel McGowan, a member of the radical environmental group Earth Liberation Front.  Earth Liberation Front, by their own description, use "economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare to stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment".

The documentary follows the split between "traditional" environmentalists and radical environmentalists.  "Traditional" environmentalists sought change through peaceful protests and letter writing campaigns.  Radical environmentalists saw these tactics as ineffectual and sought change through more dramatic means.  Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, grew out of this split.  Their means included tearing up federal logging roads and building barricades.  Or chaining themselves to old growth trees slated to be torn down for a parking garage.  Or sabotaging construction equipment and gas tanks.

The documentary follows the ELF from these dramatic and minimally destructive means to arson.  Arson was seen as a way to immediately and sometimes permanently stop an environmental adversary.  Business targeted included timber companies, slaughterhouses, and ranger stations.  The ELF prepared carefully to ensure that no person was injured during their arson.  The ELF was also careful to not leave any forensic evidence such as fingerprints or DNA.  Although the individuals setting the fires wanted to remain anonymous, the ELF was public. They enacted a Public Relations department to speak with the media on why they were setting the fires.

The media and law enforcement called them "Eco-terrorists."  The documentary poses this interesting question: Do these ELF members who set the arson deserve to be called terrorists?  Their actions of setting multiple fires did cause terror.  Terrorism means "the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes".  The actions of the ELF classify as terrorism.  The stance of law enforcement is, "You don't have to be Bonnie and Clyde to be a bank robber. You don't have to be Al-Qaeda to be a terrorist." 

However, reflect on the modern consideration on the word "Terrorist."  What do you think of?  The members of the ELF did not injure or kill anyone during the arson.  Daniel McGowan, the main focus of this interview, was a native New Yorker.  He was appalled to be considered a terrorist.  His actions had not injured or killed anyone, yet he was facing life plus 335 years in prison.

Even if you have not seen the documentary yet, let me know what you think.  Did the actions of the ELF deserve to be classifed as terrorism?  Use the Comments Section below.

Bonus materials on the DVD include: Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Extended Interviews, Updates on the ELF members, and Q&A with the Directors.

UPDATE:  In honor of the upcoming Oscars, PBS POV is now showing this free on their website:

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