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Home » Culture and Criticism

2/31: If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Submitted by on December 1, 2011 – 10:25 PM7 Comments

The story in question is that of Daniel McGowan, a former ELF agitator (and arsonist, by his own admission) who got pinched by federal agents in 2005. He's not a terribly likely-looking "domestic terrorist," certainly — not compared with the dreadlocked junkie who flipped on him for a sentence reduction, anyway — but he's an excellent choice of subject by the filmmakers for that reason. How does a young man who'd never even gone camping, the son of a New York City cop, become radicalized on the subject of the environment? How does the movement, or part of it, become radicalized, away from protest that, as long as it's non-violent, is also ineffective?

The film doesn't answer those questions, exactly, but the way it raises them is deft, and it's worth putting the ELF we see here alongside the Occupy movement and comparing the two. Does the "murder" of a redwood justify the firebombing of a lumber-company office, even if the office is empty? Will you answer differently after you watch the parking-lot/pepper-spray sequence, the Eugene cops cutting down trees with protestors still in them?

Stephen Holden's review in the Times notes, "The film’s sobriety and carefully balanced arguments make it an exemplary piece of reporting, although its emotional heat rarely rises to a boil." True, but I see enough documentaries that make my own blood simmer; this one's just a good story, well told. (If you want to get mad, Marshall Curry — co-director and -producer of If A Tree Falls — also directed Street Fight, the story of the 2002 mayoral election in Newark, NJ. Great film, and I still want to kick Sharpe James in the tits to this day because of it.)

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  • grogaard says:

    Love this feature. Do you have a list of upcoming films you're going to review?

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    "True, but I see enough documentaries that make my own blood simmer; this one's just a good story, well told."

    Ah, this intrigues me. I feel the same way. I know the creators of the documentary are presumably passionate about the subject–that's why they went to the trouble of making a doc in the first place. But so many of them get me so angry and sad that I tend to avoid them. A cooler head prevailing makes it more likely that I can sit through it and receive the message the film intended to send, rather than futiley twisting my coat sleeve and muttering about punching various body parts of the assholes on screen, giving myself a headache and nothing else of note.

    Plus, as noted in the Scientology thread, a more detached tone can be a very effective highlight to the smurfier aspects of the subject.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    No list. Just a death wish.

  • Grace says:

    Will you take nominations for the list?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    You're welcome to make suggestions — but I have enough movies that I do feel I "have to" watch between now and the Oscar noms that I may not get to suggestions. Fire away, though!

  • Michael says:

    I heartily second your endorsement of "Street Fight", and although I'm glad to see that Cory Booker eventually did become mayor, it did come one electoral cycle later than it should have. Also heartily endorse kicking Sharpe James in the tits.

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