“If a Tree Falls” preaches to the leftist choir as it tells us about a group of “environmental terrorists”

“If a Tree Falls” is a feature-length documentary, by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, about a group of environmental activists who go way beyond the call of duty – to a violent edge of it.  They are the Earth Liberation Front. “If a Tree Falls” clearly sympathizes with this group, which the FBI calls “domestic terrorists.”

The Environmental Liberation Front acts (courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories)

This film doesn’t run down a history of the movement, or even the psychology behind that.  It describes some incidents that led to the domino-effect arrests of a cell.  The film concentrates on the cell’s principal personalities: Dan McGowan, Suzanne Savoie, Jake Ferguson, and one or two other outstanding ones.  This story tells of the offenders on the extreme left, and not the offended.  Those offenders may feel that the mainstream media had taken their foes’ side.  The question of who’s the offended may be disputable.  But those whom the ELF attacked are barely heard.

“If a Tree Falls” may be righteous.  But also self-righteous.  This film shows at Minneapolis’ Lagoon Cinema for a week starting on July 22nd.

A clear bias toward the extreme leaves the film’s point-of-view weak. The bias is about 60-40 or even 70-30 in voices in favor of the extremists or terrorists.  The centrist viewers, who are against violence with this cause, are left with valid, yet open questions. Those centrists won’t be convinced by a tale of how a docile McGowan slipped into this conviction.  Objective, non-partisan voices would keep viewers’ attention.  How will they respond when they find that in fact, with one battle, McGowan, Savoie and their compatriots torched a lumber location based on false information?

Mr. McGowan describes a few cracks in his reasoning and decision-making.  Several voices, including his, explain why he, the focal character, decided that confrontation was a superior, more potent path to waking-up the offenders than mid-20th-Century tactics: marching, singing, chanting, picketing and the like.

Poster image (courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Only a few voices discuss the innocents who are bunched in with the worst violators, and hurt.  Only a couple of voices consider the lumber industry’s efforts to do good.  Some of the best documentaries may not carry an agenda, but instead a reportorial, objective point of view.  This one informs, entertains and might enlighten viewers, especially in terms of “preaching to the choir.”  The want for a moderate and balanced voice is disappointing.

With the film’s faults, it’s a good, clear, almost well told story of this sect’s work.  This film is worth watching, but DVD will suffice.

It’s easy to sympathize with the zealots’ desire for faster, more satisfying results: those, which are more progressive and aggressive than typical 20th-Century tactics.  Faster than diplomacy.  But it takes a certain gut and heart to move from the fantasy of revenge to urban or guerilla combat.  I doubt that many or even most viewers share that one with these former ELF members.

“If a Tree Falls” uses interview footage with the characters almost exclusively.  It’s a late 20th-Century story of violent protestors; other than news clips, there isn’t archival or behind-the-scenes footage.  It provides reenactments of specific details shots; it uses animation, in lieu of banal, traditional live-action reenactments of some criminal scenes, in an amusing, playful, refreshing way.

This film poses large ideological, legal and moral questions: who is a terrorist?  What is terrorism?  Does each form of terrorism pose an equal threat.


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