Eco-terrorism. Not the most pleasant word, and certainly one that opens a massive can of worms. What does it mean? Does it count as the same terrorism al-Qaeda perpetrates across the world? Furthermore, how can one sympathize with people perpetrating morally reprehensible actions in the name of a cause that is, by and large, one of the noblest imaginable: the survival of our planet. Square in the middle of this debate is the most famous group of eco-terrorists, if we’re using that word, on the planet: the Earth Liberation Front. Whatever your thoughts on the term, they are synonymous with eco-terrorism, being responsible for hundreds of arsons and property damage in the name of helping to save the environment.
It’s with these people that If A Tree Falls concerns itself with, and it does so with about as much class, respect, and even-handedness that you could possibly give.
The main focus of If A Tree Falls is Daniel McGowan, a founding member of the ELF, right after he is arrested for taking part in several different arsons across the Pacific Northwest. When we meet Daniel, he is under house arrest in his sister’s apartment, taking part in a massive court case involving most of the pioneering ELF members. Most of them have already taking plea bargains to reduce their sentences, in exchange for testifying against their former comrades. At the film’s opening, Daniel is finding himself in a difficult position: take a similar plea bargain or go to jail for the rest of his life. With this backdrop, the film explores the ELF’s beginnings in the early nineties, its rise to prominence, and its eventual downfall in the early 2000s. It draws from a variety of sources, from members of the organization to people on the outskirts of its inception to the lawyers and law enforcement officials that spent years chasing after the ELF.
This film is a massive success, owed in large part for one simple reason: balance. The filmmakers take a massive amount of care to portray the ELF, and the people in opposition to them, as evenly as possible. When we first see ELF members begin to organize, they are shown taking part in peaceful, non-violent protests first. Small actions, like protesting trees being cut down to make room for a parking lot, and we see overwhelming police action against them, and it’s easy to get swept up and shout, “Fuck the man!” Not long after that, though, we see radical elements actually begin to form what would later become the ELF and begin planning arsons and attacking police at rallies. We hear police officers responding to the violence put against them, showing real remorse for the actions they took. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the issues in this film are about as far from black and white as you can get.
This film shines, for me, because it takes guts to spent a movie doing virtually nothing but asking questions and giving few answers. That’s what documentaries are meant for, at the end of the day: to inform and create dialogue. There aren’t really too many bad guys here. There’s a lot of kids that went way too far in the name of their ideals, and there’s a lot of cops that went way too far in defense of the peace. It’s hard to sympathize with police when you’re showing raw, disturbing footage of them pepper spraying defenseless, non-violent women, but it’s equally hard to sympathize with activists that destroy buildings, costing dozens of people their jobs, all for their beliefs.
The film also finds a great protagonist, of sorts, in Daniel McGowan. He remains fairly resolute that what he did changed things, but he has also grown to understand the consequences of his actions. Not just the legal consequences, but the personal consequences as well. He may go to jail for life, or only for a few years, but regardless, his decisions will haunt him for the rest of his life and brand him as a domestic terrorist. Seeing that kind of pain in a man that just wanted to help the environment, even considering the things he did, is difficult, heart-wrenching stuff. At the same time, it’s somewhat infuriating watching so many of these hardcore activists dropping their beliefs and plea-bargaining against their former friends when the heat is one. It’s like there’s a certain hypocrisy to many of these people that the film takes no roads to avoid. At the same time, the film takes the time to ask what exactly is terrorism? Does it involve specifically the loss of innocent lives, or is the sheer act of property damage also terrorism. It’s not an easy question, and you can be sure there’s no easy answer. That’s the essence of If A Tree Falls, that kind of uncompromising look at difficult subject matter.
If A Tree Falls is a stunning look at one of the most fascinating groups of people in the modern world. It pulls no punches, and it provides no easy outs in terms of how one might feel at the end of the film about anyone involved. It has, in fact, made me question some of my own beliefs about environmentalism and extreme activism, and that’s really all one can ask of a successful documentary.