Film RadarFilm Radar


advertise with Film Radar
Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Jul. 15, 2011 | 10:40 AM

Email Print


Daniel McGowan never considered himself a terrorist.  The son of a New York City cop who grew up in a working class neighborhood in Queens, he had an unremarkable childhood and a loving family. It was only when he reached his college years that he became actively involved in environmental causes.  That’s when he joined the organization known as the Earth Liberation Front.  In Marshall Curry’s engaging new documentary, If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, we get a rare glimpse at the ELF through the eyes of McGowan and other former members, all of whom are struggling with the ramifications of being labeled a terrorist in the post 9-11 world.

Although McGowan grew up in New York, the film focuses on a number of actions staged by the ELF in Eugene, Oregon and other parts of the Pacific Northwest.  When the U.S. Forest Service announced a program of logging old growth timber in Warner Creek, OR, a large scale protest was organized that continued for the better part of a year.  The demonstrators were eventually removed by agents of the Forest Service, but that action saw the beginnings of the group that would become known as the Earth Liberation Front.  The film focuses mainly on McGowan, who had moved to Eugene and became involved in a series of actions with the group. 

The tone of If A Tree Falls is mostly sympathetic towards the ELF and its aims, but Curry also gives ample screen time to interviews with Eugene police and to victims of the groups activities.  While McGowan repeatedly points out that not a single person was killed or even injured in dozens of ELF actions, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the owners of Superior Lumber, who received phone calls at three in the morning informing them that their offices had been set ablaze.

Curry and his co-director, Sam Cullman, have done a fine job assembling archival footage from the period.  Some focus is given to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, which was a focus for the ELF, but what’s even more shocking is the ruthless reaction of the police in Eugene to what appeared to be a small scale peaceful protest.  The film won the prize for best documentary editing at Sundance this year, and the award was well deserved. Video of police pepper spraying protesters in trees juxtaposed with interview accounts of how those protesters were treated in custody provide the film with some of its most explosive material.  (Full Disclosure: This reviewer grew up in Eugene, Oregon and was living there at the time of some of the events described in the film)

Eventually, a series of ELF actions goes awry and a series of arrests are made, with the assistance of a member who agreed to wear a wire.  Most of the interviews with McGowan are conducted while he’s under house arrest, living with his sister in New York.  In spite of his protestations that his activities with the group were criminal but not terrorist, he’s now facing the threat of spending the rest of his life in prison. 

McGowan is very forthcoming as an interview subject, and his ambivalence about his time with the ELF gives If A Tree Falls a surprising poignancy.  As for what constitutes a terrorist act in this day and age, Curry and crew wisely leave that up to the viewer to decide.

If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front opens Friday, July 15th at the NuArt Theatre in West Los Angeles.  The NuArt is offering free popcorn on Saturday and Sunday due to the inconvenience caused by the closure of the 405 freeway.


Post the First Comment!