Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman co-directed this documentary feature on the shadowy Earth Liberation Front, which created some degree of havoc in the late 1990s for its violence against lumber industry companies. The organization’s membership originally used nonviolent protest measures to call attention to excessive deforestation, but their efforts were not successful. Instead, several Earth Liberation Front members set fires to the lumber company buildings and other structures belonging to firms that they viewed as being environmentally unfriendly.
“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” primarily focuses on Daniel McGowan, a former participant in the arson spree. Although he left the movement in 2001, he was tracked down by federal agents and arrested in his New York workplace in 2005. The film follows McGowan as he prepares for a plea deal and comes to the term with a disruption of his liberty.
In the film’s press notes, co-director Curry acknowledges that the film “asks questions more than it answers them.” Unfortunately, there are too many unanswered questions here, especially in regard to how the federal government played the former activists against each other in order to score arrests and indictments. One of the prime organizers of the arsons was a leading government snitch – incredibly, he received no jail time while the relatively minor lieutenants in the effort wound up behind bars.
The film also pushes the concept that the arsonists should never have been branded as “eco-terrorists” by the feds because their crimes only resulted in property damage – no person was ever killed or injured, since the arsons occurred at night in empty buildings. That notion is subject to serious debate, and it throws the film off-kilter by presenting McGowan as a half-assed Captain Planet instead of a willful participant in deliberate and well-organized criminal actions.
However, “If a Tree Falls” serves an important purpose in calling attention to environmental issues. In today’s political climate, environmentalism only gets discussed in the context of job creation or monetary savings. Curry and Cullman offer a decidedly different idea: there are some things that are more important to the planet – and, for some people, worth fighting for – than the crass pursuit of economic goals.