A new documentary ably explores the distinction between domestic terrorist and environmental activist
Marshall Curry’s new documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is an admirably even look at the radical environmental group E.L.F. and the branding of its members as domestic terrorists. Rather than explore an in-depth history of the Earth Liberation Front, Curry focuses primarily on former activist/arsonist Daniel McGowan, who’s seen facing an extremely harsh prison sentence stemming from his actions with the group a few years earlier. The film weaves, without absolute success, McGowan’s story with background on E.L.F. before also raising the issue of whether the notion that those whose crimes are limited to severe property damage should be labeled as terrorists. It all makes for a fascinating, often upsetting picture where one’s political leanings might help to color how the subject is viewed but shouldn’t close the door entirely on the topic.
To Curry’s great credit, he hasn’t made a propaganda piece. The issues raised are rather complex and mostly left minus any clumsy attempt at a position. Support may be given to E.L.F.’s ideology but never unequivocally or without balancing the realities of their methods. The initial concern is with McGowan, who was arrested by government and Oregon state officials one morning at his Manhattan workplace. How the government agents were able to connect McGowan to several instances of arson years earlier and on the opposite side of the country isn’t disclosed until the final third of the movie. The answer stings with irony and sort of repositions earlier actions. After introducing McGowan, the film shifts to how and why E.L.F. was created, showing, too, the national news coverage the group’s actions quickly gained. There’s literal treehugging, but there’s also plenty of footage of police in riot gear using pepper spray and violently shoving what appear to be nonthreatening protestors. Instrumental arrangements of familiar songs by The National layer in some melancholy that’s replaced by aggression when Rage Against the Machine’s “Sleep Now in the Fire” plays over footage of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.
Soon enough E.L.F. is branded, by both the government and the parroting media, as environmental or eco- terrorists. The film plays it relatively straight, being sure to explain the motives behind some of the group’s actions but also bringing up the legal and practical concerns of rioting and burning down buildings. It’s not out of the question to sympathize with the idea of eliminating a slaughterhouse which kills wild horses and fails to prevent their blood from running into the town’s water supply. Another instance, however, shows the supposedly meticulous organization acting on misinformation and destroying an innocent tree farm. Such large-scale, dangerous and ethically questionable activities like those undertaken by E.L.F. have no room for error.
Where Curry’s film most struggles is to effectively combine all three of its major strands into roughly eighty-five minutes. It’s great that several ideas and different points of view are introduced. Indeed, having law enforcement officers who were involved in the arson cases as interviewees makes the film more well-rounded. The question of whether someone like McGowan should be classified as a terrorist, a point saved for later in the documentary, actually seems to be the most vital topic for consideration yet must share time with personal life forays. If those are necessary to give McGowan’s legal troubles some balance then it’s worth noting how disappointingly inert the subject proves to be in his post-radical years. The most exciting moments we see from him are perhaps the obsessive scrubbing of the interior of Ziploc bags while at home. His activist days were apparently ended by some disagreement among the group over the extent of their actions. A common notion throughout the film is that those who felt strongly enough to burn down the buildings of companies perceived to be causing harm to the environment soon enough abandoned much of their dedication and, seemingly, some of their ideals.
Curry, whose previous work includes the Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight about a heated mayoral election in Newark, seems a little stuck when trying to deal with McGowan. He doesn’t make for the most compelling of subjects and probably proves most useful when recounting, with unusual frankness, his activities with E.L.F. Even having family members, including an amazingly supportive sister and his father who was in the NYPD, on camera doesn’t really help us understand McGowan or confirm the extent of his dedication. That famous line in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game becomes particularly apt. “Everyone has their reasons,” Renoir himself says in that film. That’s kind of what emerges from the immediately human elements of If a Tree Falls. The actions of McGowan and those around him, both during their E.L.F. days and the legal proceedings later on, fit somewhere in each of their own minds but maybe struggle to withstand closer scrutiny from the outside.
This dual-layered R0 disc of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front comes courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. It’s packaged handsomely, in an eight-panel gatefold case with slipcover, and with an eye toward the environment given its complete lack of plastic. A very nice cover design, too.
The feature is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions. The footage used is taken from a combination of sources and, thus, varies quite a bit in quality. Newly shot interviews look crisp, though the scenes with the McGowan family are far more dark and grainy in appearance. Other parts such as older news videos are understandably of lower quality. Aside from some gorgeous footage of the Pacific Northwest, most of the photography in the film is primarily functional and the progressive transfer essentially matches that sense of practicality.
English language audio options are available in both stereo and 5.1 surround. The differences are not major, though the Dolby Digital surround understandably has an advantage in capturing the fullness of the soundtrack. Voices come through clearly in both tracks, and volume remains generally consistent throughout the film. A variety of noises can be heard during scenes filmed on New York City sidewalks but this is clearly a natural effect and doesn’t render what is said inaudible. Subtitles, in English for the hearing impaired and optional, are available in a clean white color.
Oscilloscope tends to be generous with special features on its releases and this is no exception. An audio commentary by director and editor Marshall Curry, co-director and cinematographer Sam Cullman and editor Matthew Hamachek is an informative affair covering various aspects of the movie. Curry and Cullman return later in the supplements for a darkly lit question and answer session (9:07) filmed after a screening in Ashland, Oregon. A refreshing element of these pieces with the creative personnel is the reaffirmation that If a Tree Falls was not made to further pre-existing notions on its topic. The muddle pertaining to the issues explored remains quite thick even after viewing.
There are five reasonably brief deleted scenes (7:42) which can be watched individually or one right after the other. The same goes for a trio of extended interviews (7:08). These aren’t especially lengthy but they’re of great interest and seem to support the idea that the feature could have expanded greatly upon certain aspects of E.L.F.’s activities.
Welcome updates on some of the people seen in the picture come in a featurette entitled “You Cannot Control What Is Wild” (8:21). The fate of one particular individual seems to speak volumes about certain things relating to the movement, the dedication and the legal complexities that are detailed in Curry’s film.
The film’s original theatrical trailer (2:10), featuring the song “Cherry Tree” by The National, can be found in a section on the disc that also contains previews for other documentaries released on DVD by Oscilloscope.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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