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

By  · Published on May 4th, 2011

by Lauren Flanagan

Does a man who burned down a couple of buildings to try to stop the destruction of the earth really deserve a prison sentence of life plus 335 years? Even though he took great pains to see that no one was in the buildings and no one would be hurt should he still be labeled a terrorist? If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front doesn’t really answer these questions, but no matter what you believe, this movie will pull you kicking and screaming out of your comfort zone and force you to consider the other side of the story.

Marshall Curry (Street Fight, Racing Dreams) and Sam Cullman’s documentary follows former ELF member Daniel McGowan as he awaits trial for arson and other crimes he committed in the name of saving the planet. The movie uses Daniel’s story as a jumping off point to explore the Earth Liberation Front and how and why it became such a radical organization.

The group developed and started to gain notoriety in the 1990s and grew throughout the early 2000s. Fed up with rallies and protests that seemed to have no effect, members of the ELF took things a significant step further and demanded change through more newsworthy tactics – namely arson, vandalism and other forms of property damage. The idea was not just to make the news but to damage businesses and destroy their profits, thus speaking to corporations in a language they understood. Passionate about the earth and tired of the lack of change, McGowan joined the group and took part in some of their more radical moves, but he soon became disillusioned and dissociated himself from the group. Sadly for Daniel it was too late.

Radical environmentalism is a pretty polarizing topic and it’s hard for filmmakers to be objective. Yet Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman show a remarkably balanced view. They don’t just explore the ELF and why they did what they did, they also talk to the police, the business owners who lost their livelihoods, former friends from the ELF who turned on each other and more. Each viewpoint is explored so that it’s nearly impossible to sympathize completely with one, without considering the side of the other. It can actually be very frustrating to watch – it’s a reminder that no subject is without its complexities, and in the case of saving the environment, there’s no end in sight.

After seeing this movie I still don’t know what side of the line I fall on, and I think that’s a testament to how well this story is told. It explores each side of the argument so well that it’s near impossible to completely agree with one view or the other.

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