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The Independent Critic

Dan McGowan and other past/present members of Earth Liberation Front
Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman
Marshall Curry, Matthew Hamachek
85 Mins.
Oscilloscope Laboratories

 "If a Tree Falls" Review 
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Indianapolis International Film Festival fans will remember Marshall Curry for his 2009 documentary Racing Dreams, a feature documentary about a group of kids racing in the World Karting Association's National Pavement Series as they all shoot for their ultimate goal - NASCAR. While that doc didn't attract quite the acclaim as Curry's preceding doc, the Oscar-nominated Street Fight, it cemented Curry's status as an up-and-coming documentarian creating films both entertaining and informative.

With If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Curry tries with varying degrees of success to create a finely nuanced and balanced film about a group that the FBI has called "America's number one domestic terrorism threat, though judging from quite a bit of the archival footage one might be able to make the same argument for local law enforcement.

How you respond to If a Tree Falls, which has just been announced as short-listed for the upcoming Academy Awards, may very well depend upon where you stand politically and your own experiences with social activism, environmentalism and even the current Occupy Wall Street movement.

The film centers around the story of Dan McGowan, a member of ELF who was arrested in an FBI sweep of radical environmentalists in 2005 and suspected of being involved in ELF's growing tactic of extreme activism that included arson and property destruction of everything from a $12 million ski lodge in Vail, Colorado said to be expanding into a national forest area to timber companies, SUV dealerships, wild horse slaughterhouses and a host of other businesses, organizations and settings deemed to be contributing to environmental destruction.  McGowan, the son of a New York City police officer, was on house arrest at the time of filming but has since been sentenced to 7 years in prison and is serving his time in a low-security prison in Minnesota.

At times, ELF was clearly wrong even by their own standards such as when they torched a large nursery they believed to be growing genetically altered trees only to learn later that only the previous owner had done so. Members of ELF are also quick to argue the "terrorism" label, pointing to the fact that they have intentionally and fervently worked to ensure that no individual was ever injured in any of their intentionally set fires.

While the film at time seems sympathetic, Curry doesn't hold back (nor does ELF, for that matter) in pointing out the massiveness of their most radical form of activism. Yet, what Curry does well is balance that with equally disturbing footage of local police departments, especially in the Pacific Northwest, who practice what could only be described as individual acts of terrorism causing intentional harm to those peacefully protesting.

Sound familiar?

Sadly, it should.

The scenes involving police action on those protesting are truly the film's most disturbing, partly because there's ample footage of their actions and partly because it's so clear they are intentionally causing harm in the name of "justice."

Please note, before the slew of hate mail begins, that this is not meant (on my end) as a slight of all police, many of whom are conscientious and truly committed to protecting and serving their communities. It's more meant as an observation that power corrupts, systems fail and that while I would have a hard time defending the extremes to which ELF went to promote their beliefs I would also struggle to defend those actions made under the guise of justice.

While Curry has a tall task in attempting to create a balanced film that recognizes both sides of the argument, he does so quite nicely while also creating a truly humane picture of those who've participated in ELF and their passionate belief in their cause even as, at times, even they began to question the extreme nature of some of their actions (including McGowan, who is interviewed and acknowledges looking back at one of the arsons and believing that the entire message had been lost in the action).

If a Tree Falls utilizes archival footage, much of it never before seen, along with a slew of relevant interviews from both ELF and those impacted by the actions. Much of the action documented occurs between the years of 1995-2001, just before 9/11 forever changed American attitudes and definitions related to terrorism. The film captured the Documentary Editing prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and has been picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope Laboratories, one of the U.S.'s leading distributors for indie docs and narratives.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic