Projecting Change Film Festival: If a Tree Falls reveals motivations of environmental "terrorists"
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
A documentary by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman. Plays Friday, April 20, at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts
If a Tree Falls is a rare look at the workings of the Earth Liberation Front, a group the FBI labelled as America’s “number-one domestic terrorist threat” after a series of arson fires destroyed property—mostly empty buildings and vacant vehicles—throughout the West and Pacific Northwest starting about a decade ago.
Codirectors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman use the story of former ELF activist Daniel McGowan, arrested in New York City in December 2005 for arson, to frame this absorbing look into the history of radical resistance and environmental direct action in the U.S., mostly in Oregon and neighbouring states.
Their film, demonstrating an appeal to both establishment and non-mainstream audiences, has won documentary awards at film fests throughout the U.S., picked up an honour at Sundance, and even snagged a nomination for this year’s Academy Award for documentary features.
The story starts with McGowan languishing under house arrest in his sister’s New York apartment (where he ends up getting married) and ends with his negotiations with prosecutors and eventual trial in 2007. In between is his, and the ELF’s, story, an examination of how a business student got seduced into environmental awareness, activism, and, eventually, illegal actions that set howling post–9-11 domestic law-enforcement bloodhounds on his trail.
The filmmakers employ old family photos, archival news and private film footage, and interviews with fellow activists (including two who turned on their former ELF comrades in return for no prison time or reduced sentence) and law-enforcement officials involved in the extensive, years-long countrywide investigation that culminated in simultaneous raids and 65 charges against 11 people, including McGowan.
McGowan faced a life sentence “plus” 335 years’ imprisonment for his “terrorism”, which involved him being a lookout while some vacant forestry-company buildings were torched in Oregon and actively assisting the arson of about a dozen parked vehicles and some buildings at a remote tree-farm research facility in that state.
Other ELF actions by other cells burned a Colorado ski-resort expansion and an Oregon slaughterhouse for wild horses captured on government land.
The directors zoom in on the question of what, really, constitutes a terrorist act, especially in these days of inflamed rhetoric and attempts by conservative political elements (hello, Harper and hangers-on) to portray environmentalists as “extremists” and “radicals”.
As McGowan’s lawyer points out, the ELF and the Animal Liberation Front (a group whose actions are equally vilified in the U.S. as domestic terrorism) have been involved in more than 1,200 illegal “incidents” since their inception, incidents that have not seen a single person killed or even injured.
In a rare acknowledgement of personal feelings, even an official with the U.S attorney general’s office who was involved with the ELF investigation admits in the film how once he looked into the upbringing and lives of some of those involved in the arsons he began to see things from their point of view (not that he evinced any official misgivings).
All in all, If a Tree Falls is a reflective, informative, and sober look at the ideological climate with reference to environmental activism south of the border. And it offers more than a hint of possible future directions for a conservative agenda in this country, especially with the widespread avowed opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline planned to run through B.C..
If a Tree Falls plays as part of the Projecting Change Film Festival at SFU Woodward's, 149 West Hastings Street, at 9 p.m. on Friday, April 20. A speaker's panel will feature UBC professor and author Terre Satterfield and Greenpeace senior forest campaigner Eduardo Sousa.