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  If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front Green With Anger
Year: 2011
Director: Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman
Stars: Daniel McGowan, various
Genre: DocumentaryBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: The Earth Liberation Front was a splinter group who in the late nineties split from the better known Earth First movement, an ecology pressure group who did their best to raise environmental issues, often in the method of staging protests. The E.L.F. decided there was no progress to be made with non-violent demonstration and began a campaign of destruction, vandalising or even burning to the ground various buildings for companies involved with logging, animal slaughter or whatever these organisations carried out all in the name of profit...

And for a long time, even after the group stopped their arson attacks, the law could not catch up with them, such was the skill they employed with covering their tracks. However, as we begin this documentary the filmmakers have caught up with one of the members, Daniel McGowan, who was currently under house arrest, unable to leave his apartment, so it's clear the E.L.F. did not continue to run forever. Then the story begins to unfold of how they were caught, using Daniel as the centre which provides a human face to a movement who were never keen on revealing who they were, and a whole host of questions arise.

The key word here is "terrorist", as that is what Daniel and his ex-associates were branded by both the media and the authorities, something he hotly disputed, not seeing the connection between what he did, which was being careful not to hurt anyone in their targetting of buildings, and what your average suicide bomber got up to. Yet as the attacks on the U.S.A. of September the 11th 2001 brought that word into the minds of everyone in the country, never mind the world, it proves difficult to shift and it seems for ever more Daniel will be know as the eco-terrorist, no matter how much he protests otherwise.

Directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman were careful not to come down too heavily on one side or the other, so you could absolutely see that the damage done to the environment was something which should be raised with the public, but also that the manner in which the E.L.F. went about staging that highlighting of the issues was misguided at best, and they were very lucky that in their over one thousand acts of "fighting back" nobody got hurt. Not that losing your job because someone has razed your workplace to the ground doesn't hurt, but physical violence against the authorities never seemed to be on the agenda.

That wasn't the case the other way around, as we see footage of the police using pepper spray on the eyes of peaceful protestors, and liberal use of the baton against them to boot. If there's a problem here it's acknowledged by one of the interviewees: when the debate wants to be black and white in its angles, the truth is far more complicated, and while the filmmakers were sympathetic towards Daniel and his family who feature quite heavily here, they cannot get away from the fact he was responsible for extensive criminal damage. When he is allowed to speak his mind he seems as if he cannot quite believe what he did to get into this situation where he's facing a lengthy sentence, and in a prison for housing, yes, terrorists as well, so complex, troubling matters of contention arise about what happens when yesterday's fanatic becomes today's ordinary citizen. That this cannot answer those conundrums makes for an understandable, but noticeably weakened work.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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