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

Written by Documentary.net staff
Published on February 1, 2012

This Academy Award 2012 nominated film centers on environmentalist Daniel McGowan, a former member of the “Earth Liberation Front”, a worldwide collective of eco-guerillas.

Documentary.net special: Oscar nominated documentaries 2012.

Director Marshall Curry is no stranger to the Oscars: in 2006, his film Street Fight (which covered the mayoral campaign in Newark, New Jersey) was nominated for Best Documentary Feature – as is his latest doc.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front also covers political and social issues; it centers on environmentalist Daniel McGowan, a former member of the “Earth Liberation Front” (also known als ELF), a worldwide collective of eco-guerillas. In 2005, McGowan was arrested together with five other people in one of the largest arrests of environmental activists in US-history. The accusal: arson and domestic terrorism. The group had burnt down the Superior Lumber Company in Glendale, Oregon in 2001 and Jefferson Poplar Farms in Clatskanie, Oregon. Curry explores the motivation of the ELF and asks if what they did would qualify as either “terrorism” or “crime”. An important question for the accused, as a conviction because of terrorism means imprisonment in a high security facility.

The film is well balanced and shows both sides of the story: McGowan and other former members of the ELF are interviewed as well as police officers, prosecutors and the managers of burnt down facilities. It all comes down to two big questions: What drove idealistic young people to such drastic measures? And were those means justified? Curry tries to deliver answers through news footage and videos shot by activists themselves. Some of the footage is quite drastic, as it shows in detail how violent police forces handle peaceful protestors.

We get to see a lot of the private and personal side of McGowan, while he waits for his trial (he even marries his girlfriend). He seems like a nice, quiet person and when his sister says: „He had a totally normal childhood“ you believe her. But McGowan was worried that the environment would be destroyed by the big companies. The US-cell of the ELF was born when a peaceful protest against a parking lot escalated (Curry covers this with newsreel footage that might appear disturbing to some viewers). These violent events radicalized McGowan and his collaborators and they decided that peaceful demonstrations weren’t enough.

If a Tree Falls not only demonstrates how well-organised the cell was (animated dramatizations visualise the ELF committing the arsons) but also shows in detail how the Department of Justice was able to track the group down after four years. Viewers who don’t know about the outcome of the trial will find the film not only informative, but also thrilling.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front addresses important themes and moral questions. A film which should be interesting to anyone who is concerned about the environment.

Documentary.net says: A well-balanced documentary about the phenomenon eco-terrorism that allows the viewer to make his own judgement.

Watch Academy Awards 2012 documentary nominees trailers